< Iraq's New Censor


Friday, August 21, 2009

The big story out of Iraq this week was about a massive simultaneous bombing episode that struck Baghdad on Wednesday, killing nearly 100 people and injuring more than 500. The violence threatened to undo a feeling of relative calm in the city since U.S. forces pulled out in late June. But there are quieter attempts to turn back the clock in Iraq. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has been working to impose new restrictions on the Iraqi media with a law that would, among other things, block websites deemed harmful to Islam, including sites that feature gambling, alcohol or pornography. Last week, Iraqi journalists and press freedom advocates poured into Baghdad’s book market to protest.

[IRAQIS CHANTING IN PROTEST] Loosely translated as, our freedom is guaranteed; we don't want it imprisoned. NPR’s Deborah Amos was at the protests. She explains that the issue for many people isn't necessarily whether this law passes the Parliament, but rather what it says about the prime minister. DEBORAH AMOS: I think the reason that journalists, publishers, diplomats have been concerned about this is because it gives us some idea about the prime minister’s thinking, that he does want more control over the media in this country. It’s not altogether clear if he’s going to get it. There’s been a couple of measures that he’s been able to take without passing any laws at all. One of them is he has been asking for Internet cafes in this country to register, and that is feeling, to some people, like censorship.

BOB GARFIELD: You covered a protest a week ago in Baghdad of domestic reporters who were up in arms about the proposed changes in the media laws. Are they afraid that these provisions nominally attempting to safeguard public morality are some sort of Trojan horse for more extreme censorship in the future?

DEBORAH AMOS: Yeah, and they wanted to go on the record, and they picked a very interesting place. Al-Mutanabbi Street is famous in this country. It has been a cultural center for generations. It’s lined with bookshops, and every Friday there’s always an open market, people with magazines, English language, music, political tracks, all out on the street for sale. So this has been a place of an exchange of ideas. Even under Saddam Hussein you could go into one of these bookstores and find some illegal track behind somebody’s desk. So they went to Al-Mutanabbi Street to make their protest.

BOB GARFIELD: At least in terms of the freedom of the press, Iraq has, in some ways, fulfilled the Bush vision of democracy. It’s certainly a bigger free-for-all there than elsewhere in the Arab world, isn't it?

DEBORAH AMOS: Mostly because there are no laws. In 2003, in the American invasion, this country was thrown open to all media. Everybody bought a satellite dish, and they were feasting on Lebanese videos, on Turkish soap operas, on pornography, and also sites that encouraged terrorism, that encouraged sectarian hatred. Everything came here, because there was no apparatus to stop it and no laws to stop it. People were a little busy here over the last five years. Remember that there was a sectarian civil war, and the last thing on anybody’s mind was to think about press censorship. Now that the country has become a little calmer, you are seeing politicians begin to think about exerting control.

BOB GARFIELD: I saw a quote, I think, in The New York Times, by a deputy cultural minister named Taher Naser al-Hmood. The sentence is quite remarkable. It’s: “Our constitution respects freedom of thought and freedom of expression, but that should come with respect for society as a whole and for moral behavior.” Those are kind of antithetical thoughts. Has anybody in Iraq noticed that they are mutually exclusive?

DEBORAH AMOS: Look, there is a side of Iraqi politics that is of the Islamist flavor. And it is true that Iraq is out of line with its Islamist neighbors. There is certainly more censorship in Iran, in Saudi Arabia, in Syria, in Jordan, for that matter, even in Lebanon. This is the Wild East, in terms of what comes into this country, and there are politicians who don't like that. And there’s a constituency on the ground for that. I have seen quotes from people saying, please, take these things off the Web, it’s making me bad. This is not a society that is used to these kinds of freedoms.

BOB GARFIELD: Do you think we in the west are more concerned about all of these issues than anyone in Iraq, I mean, given the level of violence and political instability that they're facing?

DEBORAH AMOS: [LAUGHING] I think it’s a good question, because the Iraqi media didn't take this up as much as the western press did. But there is a small group of intellectuals and a small group of politicians in Iraq who use it as a gauge, who are mostly secular and want to secure Iraq in the secular camp, because the danger here, of course, is if you become a more Islamic country, which Islam is it going to be? Make it a more secular country and you avoid some of those tough questions.

BOB GARFIELD: Deb, thank you very much.

DEBORAH AMOS: Thank you.

BOB GARFIELD: Deborah Amos is a foreign correspondent for NPR. She joins us from Baghdad.