Monday, July 19, 2004


Allawi stands up for freedom of the press — Yeah, sure

Allawi has decreed that Sadr’s newspaper may resume publication. The NY Times lede has
Prime Minister Iyad Allawi on Sunday ordered the reopening of a radical1 Shiite newspaper closed by United States soldiers nearly four months ago. The closing was a catalyst for some of the worst anti-American mayhem of the occupation. [all emphasis mine]

And the Times hints at a connection between this announcement and the bombing in Fallujah—a technique of media manipulation that seems a little sophisticated for the Iraqis, if they were acting without American input.

It was unclear if Dr. Allawi timed his concession to a Shiite branch of the insurgency to soften any public-relations blow among Iraqis — many skeptical of Dr. Allawi's real power — from the airstrike against Sunni Muslim militants and foreign fighters in Falluja.

The Washington Post apparently has grasped what I wrote in Why isn’t the press defending freedom of the press?,

The al-Hawza newspaper was closed by U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer on March 28 in an attempt to squelch criticism from the cleric, Moqtada Sadr. The closure became a rallying cry for Sadr's forces, and ensuing fighting across Shiite areas took a bloody toll on U.S. forces.

Not surprisingly, the Guardian gives better coverage.

An Iraqi newspaper closed in March by the US occupation authorities, sparking protests and an armed uprising that led to hundreds of deaths, has reopened, it emerged yesterday.

The next edition of the weekly, which supports the radical Shia Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, could appear within days.

"We were waiting for instructions from Najaf [Mr Sadr's headquarters] and now we will come out again next week," Ali Yasseri, the editor of al-Hawza, told the Guardian last night.

The occupation authorities closed the paper on March 28 for 60 days, saying it had violated regulations banning incitement to violence. But it was not clear that the paper's content in its final issue was any more radically critical of the occupation than earlier issues, against which the authorities had taken no action.

The closure seemed intended to reduce Mr Sadr's influence. At the same time the Americans published an arrest warrant for the cleric for alleged involvement in murder.

Both moves led to street demonstrations by hundreds of Shia Muslims in central Baghdad. This in turn led to heightened US military patrols in Sadr city, the huge district full of jobless young people where Mr Sadr counts most of his followers.

Armed clashes erupted, which led to a full-fledged uprising that lasted for two months and spread to Najaf, Kerbala, Kut and other southern cities. Hundreds died but the cleric's support went up in every public opinion poll, as he was seen as a champion of independence.

The prime minister, Ayad Allawi, put out a statement yesterday announcing the paper's reappearance, indicating this was a mark of his respect for press freedom.

But Mr Yasseri [the paper’s editor] said the initiative for the reopening had come from his staff and Mr Sadr. He disclosed that he had met American and British officials after the closure. "I told them that they were making a mistake, and that if you close al-Hawza you will open 10 voices in its place," he said.

Asked if he feared the new Iraqi government might also ban the weekly, Mr Yasseri replied: "I didn't expect the American administration would be so stupid. We have seen American freedom and democracy and we don't think the Iraq government will do the same thing....”

So the newspaper was replaced by leaflets. The NY Times reported 3 days ago,

Mr. Sadr's forces have been handing out leaflets in Sadr City, the poor Shiite slum named for two of his relatives, listing nine categories of crimes for which the penalty is death.

"It is allowed to kill: 1. hijackers 2. kidnappers 3. thieves who are trying to disrupt safe family life 4. collaborators, spies and terrorists from Al Qaeda, Wahhabis and Saddamists," the proclamation reads. It goes on to list prostitutes, pimps, pornography sellers, gamblers - and those who sell alcohol.

Iraq is awash in leaflets and threats, and it is impossible to know how seriously to take this proclamation, which was, the leaflet said, released "with the blessing of Sadr's office and its supporters all over the country."

From a U.S. viewpoint, a newspaper, which can be criticized (and intimidated), is a much safer vehicle of expression than a leaflet. Just ask Tom Paine.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t already, please read Why isn’t the press defending freedom of the press and Why isn’t the press defending freedom of the press (revisited). Then let me know of any example, anywhere—from the Left, from the Right, from the American media, from the Western media—that condemned the closure of a newspaper by the United States.


1 The Times can’t resist the word “radical”—this from a newspaper that served as a mouthpiece for Chalabi’s lies on WMD. If you didn’t catch their mealymouthed apology last week, it’s here. [back]

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