Sunday, May 20, 2007

Banning Bad News in Iraq

This week, the Columbia Journalism Review reported that the Iraqi government is now censoring the press. It was reported that last week in the Guardian that, "police in Baghdad fired warning shots into the air to force a group of Iraqi journalists to leave the scene of a car bombing that killed seven people." This struck me as ironic, seeing that Iraq is trying to become democratic, yet, they are destroying a fundamental component of democracy--free press. In fact, the Iraqi government issued a decree stating that journalists are no longer allowed to access sites of car bombings or other violent attacks. According to Iraqslogger, the Iraq Interior Ministry Operations Director Brigadier General Abdul Kareem Khalaf gave the following reasons for censoring the press:

*the ban is to protect journalists from getting hurt (but embedded journalists already and journalists working in war torn countries already know they are at a heightened risk of injury or death)

*journalists need to be kept away from these sites because they damage/tamper with evidence (however, photographs and video are good tools to preserve a crime scene)

*journalists are disrespecting the dead by taking photos and video footage.

*journalists reporting on terrorism and attacks gives the attackers and victimizers information that they achieved their goals.

Clearly, the only reasons I could possibly accept are the latter two. But, there is something so inherently wrong with firing gunshot to scare away journalists. Not to mention, this is completely against democracy. First and foremost, these journalists are reporting on incidents that occur on public not private property for the most part. I can only wonder, how can Iraq become a democracy if it is going to suppress a free press? In all honesty, I believe coverage of these events is vital because it informs citizens and foreigners of the state of security in Iraq and the progression of the war.
Perhaps what is more disturbing is that last November, the Iraq ministry created a media surveillance unit to "watch over" journalist. Thus, if journalists reported things that were deemed unacceptable to Iraqi government (i.e. anything that diverted Iraqi attention away from the war on terrorism) legal action could be brought against the press. This is absolutely shocking, not to mention, the press was forbidden to cover parliament there too. So, in a system where checks and balances is suppose to include the press, how can Iraq ever be a democracy? In fact, how is this still not a dictatorship?--With the ministry at the helm, deciding what gets shown to viewers and what does not get shown or heard.
While I do believe Iraq is a deadly place for journalists--I do not believe the Ministry is looking to save their lives. After all, they are shooting warning shots to get journalists away from bombings...therefore, if one does not yield to the warning they get shot. So, I do not buy this story from the Iraq ministry. In addition, war reporters are well aware that their lives are in danger. Even Medill offers a 3 day seminar at Quantico to teach aspiring journalists how to remain safe when embedded for war reporting. Journalists who choose to do this type of reporting know why they are in for and do not need the government babysitting them or acting like a big brother.
Overall, while the images of dead soldiers, dead Iraqis, totaled cars and gruesome images have inundated us for more than four years now--we still need them. As CJR states, journalists who report from these sites are recording history. I have to agree with CJR that although it gets redundant, "this is the job of journalists, to continously cover these stories--and a democratically-elected government should know that."
But the larger picture may be the treatment of journalists globally. In Cuba, Fidel Castro has imprisoned journalists, in Colombia journalists are kidnapped and used as political pawns and the Chinese government constantly interferes with its press. But in terms of press restriction, we do not have to look far, even in the United States, journalists have few protections and rights. Everyday, journalists are being subpoenaed for their notes and placing the core of journalism (source confidentiality) at risk. Clearly, Journalists Without Borders Needs and other journalism organizations need to band together on a global scale to ensure the rights of journalists and to protect the trade before it becomes another arm of the government.
On a further note, I am curious to know what the Iraq government plans to do with soldiers and Iraqis placing homemade documentaries and footage on YouTube? For now, the Pentagon has banned the use of YouTube by soldiers. Is this not a form of censorship? I believe that because the U.S. is partly responsible (actually solely) for Iraqi freedom and democracy, that Iraq is learning to censor the press from the U.S.--after all, we are Iraq's role model. Therefore, if Iraq sees our government jailing journalists, forcing the release of records, ignoring FOIAs and censoring on YouTube (which is not a journalism/media outlet), they will mirror this behavior. I cannot help but think the U.S. government banned YouTube use because the U.S. Army and other soldiers created their own news channel, Multi-National Force Iraq, that shows firefights, destruction of bomb-making facilities, etc. In the end, the U.S. is essentially doing the same thing as Iraq (or vice versa) by shutting down firsthand accounts of war and other compelling reports. While the station will be back next month, guess what, it will be edited by the Pentagon---so censorship here we come!