Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Iraqi Council Muzzles Al-Jazeera

According to Britain's Times, the Iraqi Governing Council has just passed a resolution expelling the reporting staff of Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya:

Iraqi council bans al-Jazeera reports
From Richard Lloyd Parry in Baghdad
THE US-appointed government in Iraq has banned two of the Arab world’s most popular television channels, The Times learnt yesterday.

The move leaves Paul Bremer, the American civil administrator in Baghdad, facing an acute dilemma. He must now decide whether to enrage the Arab world by approving the resolution, or to veto it and risk a confrontation with his most senior Iraqi supporters.

The Times was told that the Iraqi Governing Council voted in private session to expel reporters from the al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya satellite stations for allegedly inciting violence in Iraq and supporting the anti-coalition insurgency.

The council passed the resolution by 14-2, with three abstentions. The resolution called for reporters on the two channels to be banned from Iraq for one month, pending a review of their broadcasts. “Inciting violence is what these channels proclaim,” said Mudhar Shawkat, a senior member of the Iraqi National Congress who voted for the ban. “They show men in masks carrying guns, and call them ‘the resistance’. They’re not the resistance, they’re thugs and criminals.” He said that sentiment had hardened after Saturday’s attempted assassination of a congress member, Aquila al-Hashimi.


A Bremer veto would fuel Iraqi suspicions that the IGC was a puppet body, as well as angering its members. But muzzling the stations, regarded by many as champions of Arab nationalism in an international broadcast media biased towards the US and Israel,would further alienate the Arab world.

I'm of two minds about this action. On the one hand, I'm extremely uncomfortable with the notion of censorship, even when the parties to be censored are those, like Al-Jazeera, that go out of their way to glamorize violence as "resistance." Once the precedent has been established, what is there to prevent the Governing Council from prohibiting news agencies that are merely critical of its' policies from operating freely? Surely a better approach would have been to institute legal proceedings against these two newschannels, rather than simply expelling their staff from the country.

On the other hand, armchair theorizing aside, the reality is that Iraq at present is a country without a steady constitutional arrangement or even an independent and respected judiciary, so for me to expect the Governing Council to go the legal route is admittedly a bit unrealistic. There is also the matter of Iraqi sovereignty to consider: as much as it may offend my sensibilities that a governing body should choose, in the manner of a Robert Mugabe, to expel news agencies whose take on events it finds unacceptable, to the degree that sovereignty means anything at all, it also means having the freedom to make poor choices. Bremer cannot insist that the Council is an independent body with real powers of its' own while intervening too visibly to protect its' members from their own mistakes.

In the end, I think Bremer would be wise to let the Council's decision pass, stinker though it may be, while making ostentatiously clear to the Iraqi populace that his preferred policy would have been very different. If the Iraqi population at large finds the decision objectionable, the blame will then accrue where it properly belongs. The one thing not worth paying too much attention to in this decision should be "the Arab world" outside of Iraq's borders - Bremer's constituency ought always to be the people who live within Iraq's borders rather than those outside of it.