Sunday, November 15, 2009

Editorial: The silence said a great deal

The Press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of the government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.

-- Justice Hugo Black, New York Times Co. v. United States

Last week, the 'democracy' in Iraq took another body blow when an Iraqi court or 'court' decided toeing the line for thug of the occupation Nouri al-Maliki was more important than a free press.

It starts with The Guardian publishing Ghaith Abdul-Ahad's "Six years after Saddam Hussein, Nouri al-Maliki tightens his grip on Iraq" (April 30, 2009). The article detailed the opinions of some that Nouri was attempting to become the new 'strong man' of Iraq. It was an important article and a brave one.

But Nouri doesn't like being called out. He does like attacking the press and has been doing that since shortly after the US-installed him as Prime Minister.

Tuesday, Martin Chulov and Julian Borger (The Guardian) reported the latest assault: "An Iraqi court has ordered the Guardian to pay Nouri al-Maliki damages of 100m dinar (£52,000) after supporting a complaint by the Iraqi prime minister's intelligence service that he had been defamed by a Guardian story in April describing him as increasingly autocratic. The ruling ignored testimony by three expert witnesses from the Iraqi journalists' union summoned by the court, who all said that the article was neither defamatory nor insulting and argued that no damages were warranted."

Outside of The Guardian, few were raising the issue. The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement which included the following:

"We are very disappointed to see the politicization of the Iraqi judiciary in this way," said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Mohamed Abdel Dayem . "That the courts would devote their time to this type of irresponsible suit is outrageous considering that scores of journalist murders remain unpunished. It is vital that this decision be reversed in the appeals process."
Of the
140 journalists killed in Iraq since 2003, at least 89 were targeted for murder, CPJ research shows. Iraqi authorities have not brought a single perpetrator to justice in any of those killings.
"This heavy-handed decision sends a chilling message to all journalists who have risked their lives to report from Iraq , and it resonates particularly now in the run-up to the general election scheduled for January," said Abdel Dayem. "The article accused the prime minister's government of being increasingly autocratic. This court case proved the point."
As the security situation has improved, many journalists have told CPJ that government harassment, physical assaults, and frivolous legal proceedings have replaced insurgent attacks as the greatest professional risk they face. Al-Maliki has appeared to lead the legal assault against Iraqi journalists: At least two other defamation complaints have been filed by his representatives in connection with articles critical of the prime minister, CPJ research shows. Those complaints were dropped after they came under heavy criticism.
In June, CPJ and the Iraq-based press freedom group Journalistic Freedoms Observatory
sent a letter to al-Maliki expressing concerns about increasing official harassment. In the first six months of the year, the two organizations documented more than 70 cases of harassment and assault against journalists in Iraq .


Chris Floyd (Empire Burlesque) observed, "What exactly did the Guardian do to merit this judgment -- which, perhaps not incidentally, directs them to put more than $100,000 in Nouri al-Maliki's pocket? Something which, admittedly, is quite shocking in our day: reporting."


That was pretty much it during the week. Late Friday afternoon, Jenan Hussein and Warren P. Strobel (McClatchy Newspapers) reported, "The chilling atmosphere for the news media was underscored this week when an Iraqi court fined the London-based Guardian newspaper nearly $87,000, finding that it had defamed Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. An article in the paper in April quoted unnamed Iraqi intelligence officials describing what they said was Maliki's increasingly authoritarian rule. [. . .] Free expression is one of the few benefits that Iraqi count from the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Basic services such as electricity and sewage are still in disrepair, and sectarian violence, while much reduced, is still a daily occurrence. The backlash against journalists and curbs on book, cartoons and plays, often for religious reasons, raise questions about what kind of society the United States will leave behind when American troops withdraw from Iraq at the end of 2011."

And, outside the pages of The Guardian, that's it.

Where was the press corps?

Where were the strong arguments in defense of a free press?

Would a loud, global objection cause Nouri to stop attacking the press?

It might. It might not.

But saying nothing, lodging no objections? That'll ensure that Nouri deploys this strategy again. Nouri's gotten to attack the press and get away with it.

Around the world, there was silence. Throughout the web there was silence.

And, in the process, a message was sent.

Those who refused to stand with the press, who refused to defend The Guardian better not be surprised when they're the next ones targeted.

As Charles Tripp (Guardian) observed, "There is a pattern here, in which the wires of the 'shadow state' are again being assembled, leading to the hands of one man: intelligence services run from the prime minister's office, staffed mainly by 'awlad al-Hindiyya' ['the lads from Hindiyya', Maliki's home region]; dismissals, promotions and transfers in the ministries of interior and defence that insert his loyalists at the expense of others; the introduction of censorship of imported books and control of the internet; the recent closure of Mustansiriya University and its reopening under the watchful eye of the Baghdad operations command, controlled by his office." But be like the bulk of the press . . . and . . . just pretend . . . not to notice.
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