In the ninth year of crippling UN economic sanctions and after last year’s frequent U.S. and British air strikes, President Saddam Hussein showed little sign of loosening his iron grip on Iraqi society. All media remained at the government’s disposal, functioning as instruments of propaganda for Hussein’s brutal Baath regime.
In his 1999 report about human-rights conditions in the country, United Nations human-rights rapporteur for Iraq Max van der Stoel noted that “the prevailing regime in Iraq has effectively eliminated civil rights to life, liberty, and physical integrity and the freedoms of thought and expression, association, and assembly.” He added that “there is no freedom of speech or action [in Iraq], since the mere suggestion that someone is not a supporter of the president carries the prospect of the death penalty.”
Both print and broadcast media are heavily censored and packed with praise for Saddam Hussein. Hussein’s ruthless son Uday exerts considerable influence over the press as head of the Iraqi Journalists Union and the owner of media outlets such as the influential daily Babil and Shabab TV. He also publishes a number of other periodicals.
There were a few unconfirmed reports of state actions against Iraqi journalists and newspapers in 1999, complicating an otherwise homogeneous picture of absolute state control over media. In May, the weekly paper Al-Musawwar Al-Arabi, which is published by Uday Hussein, was reportedly shut down by order of the cabinet for publishing the “incorrect” news that the government intended to print a larger denomination of the dinar. And in September it was reported that authorities had arrested Al-Zawra editor Hashem Hassan for allegedly refusing Uday’s request to edit another newspaper. CPJ was unable to verify his arrest as of this writing.
Other news sources have been suppressed. Authorities reportedly jam foreign radio broadcasts. The possession of a satellite dish is a crime punishable by imprisonment and fines. Although the government announced in October that it would allow restricted access to satellite television on a subscription basis, it was unclear when and how such a system would be implemented.
Foreign publications are available in the autonomous Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. In the rest of the country, citizens have essentially no access to foreign newspapers and magazines that criticize the Iraqi regime in any way. Iraq is also one of the few countries in the Arab world that are not yet connected to the Internet. According to New YorkÐbased Human Rights Watch, the Iraqi government blames damage inflicted on the nation’s telecommunications infrastructure by air strikes. Reportedly, authorities also prohibit the unauthorized use of modems to access Internet servers outside the country. As a result of these efforts to control the flow of information into the country, most Iraqis have little access to independent news.
Foreign journalists continued to experience restrictions on their freedom of movement and their ability to carry out investigative reporting, both in and outside of the capital, Baghdad. Upon arrival, reporters are assigned government guides, who frequently deny them access to certain parts of the city and otherwise impede their work. Although many journalists say they are able to elude their escorts and roam the capital, most ordinary citizens are afraid to speak frankly. Outside the city limits of Baghdad, it is impossible to evade the mandatory government escort.
As a result, the foreign press is often forced to accept reports from Iraqi opposition groups or the U.S. government, as with the unrest said to follow the assassination of Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr in February. Such reports must be qualified as “rumored” or “unverified.”
Jan Arell, Goteborgs-Posten ATTACKED
Arell, a reporter for the Swedish newspaper Goteborgs-Posten, was wounded by shrapnel from a British or American warplane near the ancient city of Ur, in southern Iraq. Debris from an air-to-ground missile explosion crashed about 60 feet from the car in which Arell was riding, shattering the car windows and wounding him slightly in the chest.
Arell and a colleague were preparing a story about the effects of United Nations sanctions on Iraq.