With the threat of U.S. military action looming, President Saddam Hussein invited the foreign press to cover a sham election in October, in which the government reported that he took 100 percent of the vote, extending his rule another seven years. A few days later, the media covered demonstrations that followed Hussein’s order to empty Iraq’s prisons.
The U.S. news channel CNN reported that Iraqi officials ordered CNN’s Baghdad bureau chief, Jane Arraf, and five other non-Iraqi reporters and staff members to leave the country because of overly critical reporting on the protests. But Iraq denied the move and said
that the journalists could work freely after leaving the country to renew their visas. In late December, Iraqi officials banned Arraf from the country without explanation.
Though clearly a political charade, the October election further demonstrated the Iraqi leader’s unyielding grip on power. For decades, Hussein and his Baath Party have quashed all internal dissent, using the press as a propaganda tool.
Predictably, Iraqi media–which are owned or controlled by the government, the Baath Party, or Hussein’s eldest son, Uday–display uncritical support for the regime, frequently offering garish praise for Hussein while heaping scorn on his enemies. Journalists are well aware of the consequences of negative reporting; according to Max van der Stoel, the former U.N. human rights rapporteur for Iraq, “the mere suggestion that someone is not a supporter of the president carries the prospect of the death penalty.”
But even state-controlled media can encounter problems. The influential daily Babel, founded by Uday Hussein, was suspended for 30 days in November. No reason was given for the move. The influence of the paper’s owner, however, gives it some leeway to question certain government policies. For example, the paper has criticized the government’s heavy-handed dealings with foreign media outlets.
The government, which is the country’s sole Internet service provider, heavily censors online content. Satellite dishes, modems, and fax machines are banned. However, Iraqis seeking alternative information often tune in to regional or foreign radio stations. The government has recently allowed restricted access to satellite television on a subscription basis, but the service does not offer news channels such as the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera
or the United Arab Emirates-based Abu Dhabi TV. Moreover, the cost is beyond the reach of most Iraqis.
Foreign correspondents continue to face a variety of restrictions. Obtaining visas to enter the country can take months and when granted only allow short stays–10 days to two weeks–and require leaving the country for renewal. Once inside Iraq, foreign journalists are constantly shadowed by government minders from the Information Ministry, who make reporting difficult to impossible. Some journalists, however, have managed limited reporting outside the presence of minders by conducting spot interviews during lunches or sightseeing. In rare cases, reporters have slipped through the cracks and worked without being assigned a minder. Still, there are reports that unattended journalists are “secretly” monitored.
The government frequently takes journalists on organized trips, which many say are little more than propaganda sideshows. Access to areas beyond the capital, Baghdad,
is even more restricted. Against the wishes of the United Nations, however, the Iraqi government has allowed news media to follow U.N. weapons inspectors on site visits in
an apparent attempt to bolster the country’s contention that it is not developing weapons of mass destruction.
Meanwhile, locally based foreign correspondents live under the constant threat of expulsion or of being blacklisted for future visas if they offend officials. In July, for example, Iraq banned a correspondent from Al-Jazeera for 10 days because of his use of language, including referring to President Hussein without his full title.
In the U.N.-mandated Kurdish enclaves in northern Iraq, local media operate freely, and rival Kurdish factions have established television stations and newspapers. While they tend to be partisan in nature, media outlets there are not subject to state censorship. The Internet is also available in the north.
By early winter, a U.S. military strike to topple Hussein’s regime seemed inevitable, and foreign media outlets began discussing the potential dangers of covering the conflict, including biological or chemical attacks and kidnappings. Some journalists expressed additional fears that the U.S. government might limit media access, as it did during the 1991 Gulf War and more recently in Afghanistan.
U.S. editors have held discussions with Defense Department officials about media access in the event of war. In November, the Pentagon announced that it would attempt to “embed” news reporters and photographers with front-line troops. At year’s end, however, questions remained about whether the policy would be implemented, and, if it were, whether troops would still restrict the media. It was also unclear whether journalists not working with troops would be given the same access and freedom of movement.