Three years ago, hopes were high for the newly-liberated Iraqi media. But more than a dozen Iraqi journalists have been arrested this year for “insulting public officials” and “inciting violence,” raising the spectre of Saddam-era censorship and retribution. Bob talks to Simon Haselock, former advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority, about what happened to the legal protections for journalists that he helped create.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. In 2004, the Iraqi newspaper Al-Mada named names of officials who had received kickbacks for supporting Saddam Hussein. It was hailed as an example of what a newly-free Iraqi press could do. But that was then. The New York Times recently reported that in addition to daily threats on their lives, Iraqi journalists now must contend with a legal system that has criminalized reporting that insults officials, or, quote, "incites violence." More than a dozen Iraqi journalists have been charged in the last year, and the Baghdad Bureau of the Dubai-based satellite news channel Al-Arabiya was shut down. Now, back when the Coalition Provisional Authority was in charge, it had drafted some new safeguards for the media, creating a sort of FCC and what was intended to be a model of independent broadcasting, the Iraqi Media Network. Simon Haselock drew up those plans as the coalition's media advisor, and he's on the line. Simon, welcome back to the show.
SIMON HASELOCK: Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: The chief executive of the Iraqi Media Network was quoted in The New York Times recently, saying, "It is the right of the Iraqi government as it combats terrorism to silence any voice that tries to harm the national unity." Well, [LAUGHS] the national unity, I guess, is in the eye of the beholder, and the beholder has been pretty hard-core about it.
SIMON HASELOCK: Yes. The Iraqi Media Network, in law, is set up as a proper independent broadcaster, to be overseen by an independent board of governors. And what has happened is that that board of governors has not been independent. Many of them have been political appointees. It is essentially a state broadcaster in everything but name.
BOB GARFIELD: There's a broadside of laws that actually criminalizes speech that ridicules the government or its officials. Some of the language is actually lifted directly from Saddam's penal code. How did these tight restrictions about criticizing the government ever wind up being codified into Iraqi law?
SIMON HASELOCK: Seems to me they shouldn�t have done. One of the problems that befell the CPA was, of course, that under the legal structure which empowered the CPA, they could institute orders which were the authority of the occupying power, but they could not repeal existing legislation. That has to be up to the sovereign Parliament of the day. Thus far, many of the old laws which were from the Saddam era are still on the statute books, and have not as yet, despite us pushing and encouraging - they still have not adopted any new laws to replace the old ones.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, if you accept that freedom of expression and press freedom are, you know, the very underpinnings of a democratic society, would I be wrong to conclude that the experiment to introduce democracy to Iraq is not going too swimmingly at the moment?
SIMON HASELOCK: No, it isn't going swimmingly. But ironically, I mean, despite all these things, the profession of journalism in Iraq is probably one of the most dangerous professions anywhere in the world. One of the reasons for that is that there has been an explosion in media. Much of that media is partisan either toward the government or toward certain political parties or religious groups, etcetera, but there is a lot more open debate than there used to be. There is a constitution which basically underpins the basic freedom of expression. The problem is when you have a violent situation, governments in that part of the world tend to revert to what they understand best, which is what they've always done in the Middle East, and that is to censor and be repressive.
BOB GARFIELD: Have you been on the phone, screaming at people and saying, how could you undo what I worked so hard to do for you?
SIMON HASELOCK: Yes, basically. It's been a rollercoaster, and there have been periods where we thought things were going very well. The current prime minister, when he was a member of Parliament, he was advocating very strongly for keeping the government out of the media. It's quite interesting and bizarre, that the circumstances there have pushed him into this corner where he feels that he should do what he's done. The problem is basically that many people in political positions in Iraq and other places don't understand the nature of the media which they're trying to regulate. And this is why, you know, things like banning al-Arabiya just wasted wind, because, as we know, these are broadcasts from outside Iraq. Many people now have satellite dishes in Iraq. And so people will continue to watch this stuff, so that they should engage, be open and much less repressive, and they will actually get their views across much more strongly. Other people have learned that in other parts of the world. This message has yet to be fully understood by people in that part of the world.
BOB GARFIELD: Simon, thank you. You're kind to join us.
SIMON HASELOCK: Not at all.
BOB GARFIELD: Simon Haselock is currently working as a media consultant on behalf of the British government in Sudan. He previously was the media advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authorities in Iraq.