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News Should Flow in Iraq

August 15, 2004

When Iraq's interim prime minister padlocked the Baghdad bureau of Al Jazeera last week in the service of building a democratic Iraq, U.S. State Department spokesmen nodded their heads. "We would note," one said, "that the insurgency and others have made it a habit of using the media to advance their agenda."

To be sure, the Qatar-based satellite channel is an electronic bullhorn for fiery militants like cleric Muqtada Sadr, glorifying their exploits as it fixates on the dead children and demolished homes U.S. troops leave in their wake. Al Jazeera's dog-with-a-bone programming makes the network not unlike, well, Fox News, whose obsession with Bill Clinton long outlives his presidency.

Arab leaders generally don't shrink from shuttering newspapers or jailing reporters when they say something annoying. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has sent many journalists to jail or into exile, and Al Jazeera is already banned from working in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Tunisia.

Iraq's U.S. patrons, clearly uncomfortable with this record, now espouse what they believe is a loftier justification for censorship: Iraqis, still novices at democratic self-rule, simply aren't ready yet for the free-for-all of ideas indispensable to a democratic society. That was also the reasoning in March when the U.S.-led coalition closed a newspaper sponsored by the anti-American cleric Sadr.

In other words, we Americans can handle it when Rush Limbaugh jeers Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards as a pompadoured trial lawyer or when Michael Moore suggests that President Bush lied about his reasons for going to war. But Iraqis are so politically unsophisticated, goes this theory, that Al Jazeera's gory sensationalism will just send more of them into the streets.

So do American military and diplomatic leaders believe that Iraq first needs political stability and a literate and secular middle class for democracy to take root? Or do the civil liberties essential to any democracy -- freedom of speech and an uncensored press high among them -- help give rise to that stability and a middle class?

Latin America is an instructive example. As much as half the population of Ecuador and El Salvador is poor by any standard. Political stability has been hard won, a long time coming and still sometimes tenuous. Yet a vigorous press flourishes. Certainly our own history, which included a bloody four-year civil war replete with fevered and partisan newspaper reporting, is instructive.

Freedom of expression, including press freedom, was declared an international human right by the United Nations in 1948. If U.S. authorities believe in the principle of self-determination, they should practice it -- starting now -- insisting that the interim Iraqi leaders acting under U.S. auspices do so as well.

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