Thursday, October 19, 2006

Censorship and freedom of speech in Iraq: The Azzaman case.

Perhaps one of the hottest debates in the media community and its surroundings in Iraq these days is the one that was sparked by a controversial call from the speaker(s) of the parliament to the government to shut down al-Sharqiya channel.

The fury among the parliamentarians behind this call was apparently a reaction to the way the channel and its sister newspaper Azzaman covered and handled the story of the federalism law that was instated by the parliament last week.
Actually there was a particular report on Azzaman that went way far from objectivity and where the editor(s) obviously let the anger speak for them that they portrayed the MP's who turned the tide in that session as traitors who sold the country, blah blah blah.

I frankly do not like Al-Sharqiya channel nor I put much trust in Azzaman, or let's say I do not like its inclinations rather than its programs and reports, or at least some of them.
The channel and newspaper (both run by the same man Saad al-Bazzaz, once was the press advisor of Saddam) have a Baathist tone that is clear to the keen spectator/reader and it's one of those channels that are long time criticizers of America and the four Iraqi administrations that ruled the country since the fall of Saddam.
However, the channel has its admirable qualities as well. It now stands among the most popular Iraqi TV channels and it's the only secular one so to speak. It also gives entertainment a fair share of the broadcast time in contrast with most other channels that sound like a funeral house.

Anyway, I would not, by any means, support a campaign or a decision to silence this channel or its sister paper.
The diversity in voices and approaches is what makes today's Iraq different from what it used to be under a totalitarian regime and among the important forms of this diversity is that of media.

I was for the decision to put a ban on al-Jazeera a couple years ago because the damage al-Jazeera caused and poisons and provocations it spewed were so outrageous that made the ban sound very fair to me, but I was then against punishing al-Arabiya when the government ordered it to close its offices for a month.
Although al-Arabia is far from being perfectly objective, it hadn't done something that deserves a ban as a punishment.

Actually my greatest fear in this regard now is that this practice of arbitrary bans becomes systematic within the government and spreads to abolish the margin of freedom of speech we began to enjoy only three years ago.

Al-Sharqiya and Azzaman do spend most of their words and time on blaming America and the government or everything that went wrong in Iraq yet for a very long time they seemed to be rarely, if ever, willing to put some of the blame on the various factions of insurgents, and terrorists. Only recently they began to focus more on the atrocities committed by militias, especially Shia religious ones.

Al-Sharqiya and Azzaman do not support violence and this is something I admire in them, yet what I don't admire is that they tend to ignore the original sources of the violence that is sweeping large portions of our country.

Professor Cole wrote briefly about this and he wonders why the Communist Part and the Sadrists would defend Azzaman and al-Sharqiya (it's not al-Iraqiya Professor!).
I don't agree with Cole it's about posturing because I think the motives of the Sadrists are clear, first the ban was requested by the Sunni Islamist speaker of parliament Mashhadani, the National Iraqi List and the rival Shi SCIRI who both supported the vote and second because al-Sharqiya and Azzaman, like the Sadrists are both anti-American and anti-federalism.

On the other hand, it seems Mr. Cole didn't see clearly what the position of the Communist Party is regarding this issue. If you can read Arabic you will see, from the same Azzaman article that Cole referred to, that the Communist Part is clearly mad at al-Sharqiya and Azzaman but favors relatively more civilized measures in dealing with them. If I'm not mistaken, I read somewhere that the Communists want to sue Azzaman for what they published about the secretary general of the party, this can also be inferred from the same above link.

Perhaps what the editorial board of another Iraqi paper, al-Mada, wrote this morning presents the best understanding of the reasons why such conflicts between the government and the media keep happening.
Al-Mada reminded us and drew our attention to the fact that the press here does not have a functioning code of work ethics and that in general our press does not have clear lines to separate between reports and columns and opinion pieces.
In the same time, the executive and legislative authorities are yet to have the clear fair policy or the appropriate legislations that govern the way in which these authorities can deal with the press when they feel the press did something wrong.

I can say that both parties think and believe they were right in what they did and that their freedom grants them the right to do that but apparently they don’t realize that freedom without laws will be a mess.

Maybe it's time for both sides to start developing better standards of work and clear guidelines on how to coexist and do the service they are expected to do, and I hope this case motivates them to do so.

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