U community members critique current Iraqi press

Mohamad Elmasry

After two years of war, an ousted regime and recent political elections, questions remain about freedom of the press in Iraq.

Some University community members disagree about how free the Iraqi press is now compared to under the rule of Saddam Hussein, the embattled country’s former leader.

J. Brian Atwood, Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs dean, said he didn’t think anyone could be satisfied with the current situation.

“There are some serious questions as to whether the press is operating freely,” he said.

Atwood said the violent environment in which members of the media work, as well as the reality of the U.S. occupation, hinder freedom of the press.

“It’s an occupied country, so it’s going to be difficult for the press to operate,” he said.

Atwood said the United States’ decision to close down the newspaper of anti-occupation leader Muqtada al-Sadr is an example of limiting press freedom.

“It sent an ambiguous message – if you’re critical of the United States, you’re going to get your newspaper shut down,” Atwood said. “I think, in retrospect, it was a mistake.”

Dale Carpenter, professor at the University’s Law School, said that the freedoms of the press in Iraq have changed dramatically since Saddam was removed from power.

“There is not the official government censorship that existed under Saddam,” Carpenter said. “There has been a flourishing of journals, newspapers and magazines postinvasion.”

Broadcast journalism student Kim Johnson said the U.S. military restricts press freedoms in Iraq.

“The military makes it convenient for journalists to take the easy way out and report on exactly what the military wants them to report on,” she said.

Johnson said press members are only allowed to go to places the U.S. military approves. She also said press members can’t interview whomever they choose.

“A lot of times, the (military’s) media specialist will actually assign sources for journalists,” she said.

Johnson said the government’s defense for restricting press freedoms is national security. But she said she doesn’t agree with that defense.

“When you’re at a time of war, people should have the most-accurate information,” she said.

But the press has greater freedom in Iraq today than under Saddam’s rule.

“There was no freedom of press in Iraq under Saddam,” journalist Khaled Dawoud wrote in e-mail.

Dawoud worked for The Associated Press and currently reports for Al-Ahram Weekly, published in Cairo, Egypt.

“Iraq’s government-owned news agency was nearly the sole provider of daily news, including international affairs,” Dawoud wrote. “They were all edited and censored first to reflect the regime’s view.”

Dawoud wrote that Saddam’s regime was very strict on foreign journalists.

“All our visits and moves in Iraq were guided and planned by government,” he wrote.

Each journalist was assigned a government official – a “minder” – who accompanied journalists on their travels in Iraq, Dawoud wrote.

“You can imagine, of course, how much freely people would speak to you when you are accompanied by a government minder,” he wrote.