Free speech ain’t easy

Free speech ain’t easyJack Fairweather in the Telegraph worries that the free press that has flowered in Iraq may not survive:

Fears are growing that the flowering of the Iraqi media, which was supposed to set an example for the whole of the Middle East, will be short-lived and cannot last beyond the handover of power at the end of June.

Relations between the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority and some local press and television outlets are already strained and observers believe things will get worse.

In the past 10 months, the authorities have banned two leading Arab TV news channels and closed down two newspapers.

The administration has said it has to put a stop to dangerous and irresponsible journalism among Iraq’s hundreds of new media outlets.

“In the current security situation, we simply can’t have people on television calling us liars, thieves and traitors and offering rewards in heaven if we are shot,” said Mahmud Othman, a Kurdish member of the Iraqi Governing Council.

But many Iraqi journalists fear the administration’s heavy-handedness has set such a poor example that the fledgling media will be the first institution to crumble after America hands over power this summer.

“We understand the need to balance freedom of speech with the current security climate but the administration is making a mess of things,” said Walid Wehad, bureau chief for al-Arabiya television which, with al-Jazeera, dominates news coverage in the Middle East.

He says Iraq’s Governing Council, a US-appointed body of Iraqi politicians, has proved hyper-sensitive to criticism. “Their first instinct is to ban and censor when they hear something they don’t like,” said Mr Wehad, an Iraqi who worked for the state television.

A free press is a vital component of a free society in Iraq and a critical example to be set for neighboring nations. We have to do better. [Thanks to Tom at Media Drop for the link]