Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The End of Press Freedom in Iraq?

By Juan Cole

"Al-Zaman, the Times of Baghdad, reports [Ar.] that press freedom may soon be a thing of the past in Iraq. The Iraqi parliament on Monday passed a resolution calling on the president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, to intervene to close down the offices of the al-Sharqiyah television channel in Iraq, and to close down a newspaper, al-Zaman itself! Both are owned by a media group headed by Saad al-Bazzaz, and they have a mild secular, Arab nationalist tone. It is not a point of view welcome to the Shiite fundamentalists who dominate the Iraqi parliament.

The parliamentarians were upset about the negative coverage in the two news outlets of the vote last Wednesday by a bare majority to create the rules for the establishment of provincial confederacies. The vote was rammed through by a simple majority once a bare quorum had been established, despite the boycott of the vote by several major political blocs, including those of the Sunni Arabs. The parliamentary maneuver was contrary to the spirit of the promises made to the Sunni Arab community last year this time that if they joined the political process they would be given a voice on such matters. Al-Zaman covered the vote critically and called it a black day for Iraq.

The parliamentarians, presumably mainly members of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, accused the two of calling into question the patriotism of the politicians who favor regional confederacies.

I see this resolution as an extension of a virtual doctrine of the tyranny of the Shiite majority, and aimed at silencing a major Sunni Arab newspaper.

al-Sharqiya Television employs 400 reporters, administrators and technicians. Al-Zaman newspaper employs 150 reporters, 160 technicians and administrators in all of its Iraq-based operations. The parliament warned these two media organs against repeating their "unacceptable coverage."

Please write your legislators and urge them to pressure the Iraqi government to abide by the freedom of the press provisions of the Iraqi constitution.

I already see less controversial news in al-Zaman than I used to. I think the window of relative press freedom may be closing. Al-Zaman has a London edition and can be kept alive abroad, but would lose something important if its editorial offices ceased being in Iraq.

Al-Zaman also reports that some MPs did insist that parliament does not have the authority to close newspapers and television stations, warning that such a move would represent a return of the dictatorial methods of the former regime.

You hope they are in the majority."

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