Attacks on the Press 2000: Iraq

TEN YEARS AFTER THE GULF WAR, Saddam Hussein’s brutal Baathist regime maintained its hold on the Iraqi police state, allowing no dissent and exerting relentless control over information.

On December 4, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly condemned what it termed Iraq’s “systematic, widespread, and extremely grave” abuses of human rights-an assessment that left little doubt about the moribund state of free expression in the country. Newspapers, radio, and television were heavily censored and larded with paeans to the Iraqi strongman. Any criticism of Hussein and his regime carried mortal risks.

In U.N.-mandated northern enclaves beyond the regime’s control, rival Kurdish factions operate their own television stations and newspapers beyond the reach of official repression. Everywhere else in Iraq, media outlets not run by the state are controlled or influenced by Hussein’s infamous son Uday, who oversees an extensive media empire and is also head of the national press union, which named him “journalist of the century” in April for his “innovative role, his efficient contribution in the service of Iraq’s media family…and his defense of honest and committed speech.”

The sterile Iraqi press nonetheless provoked a few official complaints. In January, Hussein banned satirical commentary and cartoons from local publications after certain newspapers criticized aspects of government performance, according to the Saudi-owned London newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat. Some writers were apparently barred from writing, or asked to tone down their style.

In an unusual display of editorial zeal, the weekly Al-Zaman chastised the Ministry of Information for failing to implement a 1999 Cabinet decision to make selected satellite television channels available in Iraq, where possessing a satellite dish is a crime punishable by imprisonment and fines. In late 1999, the government announced that it would allow restricted access to satellite television on a subscription basis, but there was no word on how or when the proposal would be implemented.

The Internet made its public Iraqi debut in July, when authorities opened the country’s first Internet café in Baghdad. Café users were only allowed access to government-approved sites, however. The government, which is the sole Internet Service Provider, announced that it planned to provide more public connections in the future. Meanwhile, private Internet access is forbidden, modems are banned, and fax machines can be used only with government permission.

The government continued to assign foreign journalists mandatory minders, who often denied access to certain places and prevented or hindered interviews with members of the public. Some reporters, however, were apparently granted more access to the northern Kurdish areas and the Shiite-dominated south than in past years. “Within two days of our arrival, we each received permission to travel all around Iraq for a week before returning to Baghdad,” wrote one U.S. journalist who visited with a group of colleagues in July and August. “Of course, we were always accompanied by our minders. Sometimes, it seemed, even the minders had minders.”