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Today is:
The Fine Line of Censorship
By Kasia Kubin

On March 28th, US occupying forces shut down a Baghdad newspaper, Hawza, at least the second Iraqi newspaper to have been subject to US censorship. The cited reason for the decision was that the newspaper was anti-American and printed misinformation that provoked hatred toward Americans. It is true that the newspaper printed largely dramatized and often anti-American stories, which amounted to little more than rumors, but it is difficult to imagine that Hawza could significantly “hurt stability” in Iraq, to use the words of Al Elsadr, the occupation government’s media liaison.

In fact, it would have been more far-sighted to allow anti-American ideas to be published. News sources should be allowed space for free expression of ideas, which are present with or without print media, not only on ethical grounds, but also because news sources in Iraq can serve as a gage of public opinion toward the occupation. Even in the likely case that the US occupants do not care to receive Iraqi feedback on their work and popularity in Iraq, however, censorship is in direct contradiction with the stated objective of US occupation: to build a democracy, which by definition means pluralism and tolerance for a diversity of peoples and opinions. "I guess this is the Bush edition of democracy," was the ironic comment from an Iraqi freelance reporter. His reaction, however, rings too close to truth.

US commitment to free press and a plurality of media voices has been questionable from even before the start of the war in Iraq:

  • In the aftermath of September 11th, journalists in the US who were critical of the US or who presented a more worldly perspective on the reasons behind the attacks were limited in what they could write or promptly found themselves without a job. Bill Maher, host of ABC’s Politically Incorrect, was probably the most high profile instance of such censorship when his show was cancelled after his comments were deemed "a terrible thing to say," by Ari Fleischer, then Whitehouse spokesman;
  • Al Jazeera, the Quatar-based major independent news source of the Arab world, also faced demands from the US administration to change or limit the content of its broadcasts. Later in the war, Al Jazeera offices in Baghdad were hit by US missiles;
  • On April 8th, 2003, the Hotel Palestine in Baghdad, where it was known that hundreds of international journalists were staying, was hit by a US shell, killing at least three journalists. US officials were not able to provide a tenable explanation for why the hotel was attacked;
  • And most recently, the US army admitted responsibility for the March 18th death of two Iraqi journalists.

On the other hand, US concern that Hawza might incite violence toward American soldiers was not entirely unfounded. Media not only reflects the news but it also helps to make it by shaping public opinion. There is no better example of this than the USA. From blatant manipulation to direct suppression of information sources, media censorship has been commonplace in the US. The widespread and consistent control of media has produced remarkably uniform information across the country, which has had profound affects on popular opinion. For instance, as late as September 2003, 70% of Americans still believed that Hussein was directly involved in the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center Towers. Given that Iraq’s link to 9/11 was entirely fabricated (remember the aerial views of alleged arms factories in a place that could have been any desert, or that the administration in fact plagiarized a large portion of a California graduate student’s research on Iraqi intelligence), such poll results require the exceptional circumstances of imposed as well as self- censorship, and a public distanced from or apathetic to current events.

Take as another example, the infamous story of Jessica Lynch, which is now widely accepted as a media ploy that capitalized on stereotypes of white women as victims and on the fear of terrorism to gain support for the war at a time when the US administration was facing declining confidence. The BBC news called the Lynch story “one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived,” a comment that sounds more like a Hollywood movie review than news, but for good reason. The problem is that as much as the Lynch story had been manipulated by the army and the administration, the great majority of media sources accepted and promoted the military footage without questioning its origin and contents.

Arguably one of the major effects of the war in Iraq has been to highlight the problems of social control by media and the consequent need for a free and diverse press, especially in the USA. On the one hand, media needs to be held accountable (something we should have learned with Jayson Blair, and which Blair himself suggested as part of a solution). There is always the danger that media can shape, more than inform public opinion, and certainly there should be tightly enforced standards (not limits) on content and manner of expression. On the other hand, media must be free to reflect the diverse opinions that exist in society. Rather than operating under the ideal of objectivity, media could actually gain credibility and weight if it acknowledges the perspective it portrays. Thus, having extreme opinions freely expressed would be less of a threat and more of a barometer for what is going on in society.

Having a diversity of perspectives officially exposed through media, moreover, will act as a deterrent for media in general to be co-opted by those in power. It is unacceptable that in the US, opinions and slants in media reporting that deviate from the mainstream should be discredited with the label of promoting the “liberal agenda,” as if the “liberal agenda” were somehow less objective than the conservative mainstream line. News sources should portray a variety of perspectives on important issues from Isreal, Iraq and Colombia, to social welfare and the presidential race for that matter.




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