Rare Voices of Dissent
Iraqi workers check the al-Zaman
newspaper, owned by Uday Hussein, Saddam's eldest son -
Credit: Agence France-Presse
by Kimberly Tabor
only is the press not free in Iraq, journalists must attempt to
gather facts from wary -- and some would say terrorized -- Iraqis
who are highly reluctant to criticize Saddam's regime. (Insulting
the president is punishable by death.) Here's a brief introduction
to the Fourth Estate in Iraq along with links to reports chronicling
the country's dismal record regarding press freedom.
"As far as the Arab world, Iraq has one of the most restricted
medias, if not the most restricted," says Joel Campagna, Middle
East program coordinator for the Committee
to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in New York City. Indeed, in
a region where most countries in recent years have lessened the
state's grip on media, Iraq's government continues to wield extraordinary
control over the press. "We haven't noticed any change in press
freedoms in Iraq," says Campagna. "They've remained consistently
poor. The [Iraqi] government has given no indication that it will
allow legitimate dissent or criticism."
Reporters Without Borders,
a French organization that monitors press freedom worldwide, says
that Iraq is one of the 10 countries that it considers most hostile
to journalists and independent media. The group says that Saddam
Hussein is a "predator of press freedom" and reports that the
"Iraqi regime uses every means to control the press and silence
dissenting voices." It is, in fact, spelled out in Iraqi law that
journalists in Iraq must not make "any declaration or suggestion
that might benefit an enemy at the expense of the country."
Uday Hussein, Saddam's oldest son, controls about a dozen newspapers
in the country as well as Iraq's most influential
television and radio stations. Further, the Iraqi Ministry of
Information appoints all of the country's journalists, who must
be members of the ruling Ba'ath Party and of the Journalists'
Union, which is chaired by Uday. In a move ridiculed by some Western
analysts, Uday was elected Journalist of the Century by the union
in April 2000.
Foreign journalists who cover Iraq are faced with a variety of
obstacles, from government censorship to limits on visa stays,
says Campagna. In "Air War: How Saddam Manipulates the U.S. Media,"
Franklin Foer, an associate editor of The New Republic,
described the process of applying for an Iraqi visa as "labyrinthine":
First you send the Iraqi consulate in Washington, D.C., a copy of your curriculum vitae and passport. If the Iraqis decide that you are eligible to apply, you fill out a form provided by the consulate that asks about your religion and relationship to the American government. During moments of crisis, such as the current one, four separate committees in Baghdad review the application. (The New Republic, Oct. 28, 2002)
Foer says that visas
are, in fact, the Ministry of Information's most salient tool
for controlling the movements of foreign journalists in Iraq.
Another tool is the ministry's provision of "minders," state-sanctioned
individuals who shadow a visiting journalist's every move and
arrange interviews on the journalist's behalf. Anthony Cordesman,
an expert on national security issues at the Center for Strategic
and International Studies and an analyst for ABC News,
has reported that the Ministry of Information "maintains a long
list of seemingly private Iraqis who are fluent in foreign languages."
Those Iraqis are allowed to give "private" interviews, Cordesman
says, and though they may appear to be somewhat critical of the
regime, they've been handpicked to serve as mouthpieces for state
Al-Shabab (Youth) Radio producers
at work in Baghdad - May 2002.
Credit: Agence France-Presse
in October 2002, there were accounts by seasoned Western journalists
that the Iraqi public was becoming bold, almost brazen, in its
openness. After Saddam granted general amnesty to the great majority
of Iraqi political prisoners, foreign correspondents wrote of
the seemingly spontaneous protests that erupted outside government
buildings. In The New York Times, John F. Burns called
the events a "potentially seismic trend," while Anthony Shadid
of The Boston Globe labeled it "an extraordinary show of
dissent in one of the world's most tightly guarded capitals."
(See Rare Voices of Dissent.)
happened next was old-style Iraqi politics, however. Western news
reports surfaced that CNN had been expelled, allegedly for its
coverage of the protests. Eason Jordan, a news executive at CNN,
released a statement saying that the action was "draconian." Then,
Uday Hussein, in a surprise gesture, used one of his newspapers
to chastise the ministry for overreacting. The ministry soon backpedaled,
and the CNN reporters indicated that some of the pressures on
them had been relieved.
Now Western analysts are left to ponder the long-term effects
of the protests and the attendant media coverage. CPJ coordinator
Campagna is guarded in his assessment.
"I can comment from the perspective of the media. And yes, we
did see that the networks were able to report on the protests,
and there was a lot of coverage in the U.S. press," says Campagna, which he admits is a new development. "How that translates politically
and whether this is going to continue to embolden Iraqis to speak
out, we just don't know."
Newspapers: Strictly controlled by the Iraqi government. Uday Hussein controls about a dozen newspapers in Iraq and sits on the editorial committees of some of the most influential dailies.
Radio: Under strict state control. The country's most popular radio station is Voice of Iraq FM, which airs Western programming and is controlled by Uday Hussein. Reporters Without Borders says that the best way for Iraqis to get news is to listen to foreign radio stations in Iraq, such as the BBC and Voice of America.
Internet: Iraqi government is only service provider. Access is available in several cybercafes in Baghdad, but use reportedly is strictly controlled by the security police.
Television: Under strict state control. Uday Hussein runs Youth TV, the most popular of the three state-run stations. Only the country's elite can afford satellite service to view foreign channels, and even then, access to satellite broadcasts is limited.
These are three surveys from press-freedom watchdogs that assail
the Iraqi government's authoritarian management of the media.
to Protect Journalists
The Iraqi regime, reports CPJ in its 2001 survey, maintains a
"stranglehold" on all of Iraq's media outlets. "Insulting the
president or other government authorities is punishable by death,"
CPJ reports. "Hagiographic coverage of the country's political
leaders and vilifications of their enemies fill the press." CPJ
bases its report on its own independent research and on information
from foreign correspondent contacts in the field. Read CPJ's
entire 2001 report on press freedom worldwide.
"For the past 20 years Saddam Hussein has controlled the media
with an iron fist and has given them the single mission of relaying
his propaganda," concludes Reporters Without Borders, a media
watchdog group based in France. Reporters Without Borders also
publishes this index
of press freedom, in which Iraq ranks 130th out of 139 countries.
In its 2002 annual survey of press freedom in 187 countries, Freedom
House, a New York City-based independent human rights monitor,
found that Iraq tied for dead last with Burma, Cuba and North
Korea. The group reports, however, that "[s]ome criticism of low-level
officials and investigations into official corruption are occasionally
tolerated provided President Saddam Hussein or major policy issues
are not involved." Freedom House's report is based on data from
foreign correspondents, human rights organizations, regional experts,
government reports (both U.S. and foreign) and worldwide news
Voices of Dissent
Shortly after Saddam Hussein granted amnesty to most Iraqi prisoners
and all but emptied the country's jails in October 2002, John
F. Burns, the New
York Times's correspondent in Baghdad, reported on a series
of what he deemed "small but remarkable" protests. "The protests
over the last two days are the most visible sign of a new and
potentially seismic trend: a willingness among ordinary people
to speak up," Burns wrote.
What follows is a sample of what Burns heard and wrote about in
the few days following the protests.
"The only people who voted 'yes' with their hearts were members
of the Ba'ath. ... Everybody else voted out of fear." (Oct. 27,
--English-speaking Iraqi, disputing the spirit of the Iraqi presidential
vote after the government announced that 100 percent of the voters
had cast their lot with Saddam Hussein.
"We had eight years of war with Iran in the 1980s, and all we
got was death. ... Then we had the war over Kuwait, and more death.
Nobody here wants another war. We want jobs. We want peace, not
death." (Oct. 27, 2002)
--Out-of-work Iraqi engineer; he told Burns that few Iraqis would
support Saddam Hussein if his disputes with the United States
plunge the country into another costly war.
"I demand to know where is my son!" (Oct. 23, 2002)
--Middle-aged Iraqi woman at a protest outside Iraq's Ministry
of Information a few days after the amnesty was granted.
To read Burns's account of the Iraqi government's unpredictable
relationship with the Western media in the New York Times,
Offers West's Reporters a Kinder, Gentler Face". (registration
War: How Saddam Manipulates the U.S. Media"
From Franklin Foer, an associate editor at The New Republic,
this article discusses the ins and outs of reporting on Iraq and
the pitfalls of reading the international media's coverage of
events. "The Iraqis have become masters of the Orwellian pantomime
-- the state-orchestrated anti-American rally, the state-led tours
of alleged chemical weapons sites that turn out to be baby milk
factories -- that promotes their distorted reality," Foer writes.
"And the Iraqi regime has found an audience for these displays
in an unlikely place: the U.S. media."
Tabor is an Associate Producer for FRONTLINE's Web unit.
Editor's note: This page was originally published in November of 2002. On March 26, 2003, the page was modified to correct an inaccuracy which listed Qusay Hussein as Saddam's eldest son in the first photo caption.