Hours after the closure of Al-Hawza, thousands of outraged Iraqis gathered in front of the paper’s padlocked offices to protest what they called a crackdown on freedom of expression, decrying it as an act of American hypocrisy.
“We don’t want another Saddam!” the largely Shiite protesters shouted, referring to the country’s U.S. administrator, Paul Bremer.
The crowds chanted, “No, no, America!” and “Where is democracy now?” while another group set fire to a U.S. flag.
Al-Hawza, known as a radical and anti-American newspaper, is controlled by the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, an outspoken critic of the U.S.-led occupation. Al-Sadr, a young influential cleric among Shiites in poorer Baghdad neighborhoods, has preached resistance to the occupation and threatened to form his own militia.
“This is what happens when an Iraqi journalist expresses his opinion,” sheik Abdel-Hadi Darraja, a representative of al-Sadr, told the Associated Press.
Al-Sadr’s office issued a statement on the newspaper’s closure that said: “We ask everybody to come to the newspaper and stay there until it is reopened.”
The order to shutter the newspaper for 60 days was delivered by the U.S. soldiers, who apologized to the demonstrators as they guided writers and editors out of the building, Al-Hawza staff members told The Washington Post.
The letter ordering the paper’s closure, signed by Bremer, charged the newspaper of having “published articles that prove an intention to disturb general security and incite violence against the coalition and its employees.”
The letter cited what coalition officials described as false reports, including a Feb. 26 article that said a rocket “fired by an (American) Apache helicopter” was responsible for the deaths of 53 Iraqi police recruits, and not a car bomb, as occupation officials had said. In the same edition, the letter noted, a headline to a different article critical of the U.S. occupation in Iraq read: “Bremer follows in the footsteps of Saddam.”
Still, many Iraqis at the demonstration said closing down a popular newspaper would fuel anti-American sentiments, coming at a critical time when coalition authorities are preparing to hand sovereignty back to Iraqis on June 30.
“That chain you see on the door is one of the American symbols of freedom,” Ali Alyassari, the editor, told The Washington Post after leaving the Al-Hawza office. “Do you think this is political freedom?”
“What is happening now is what used to happen during the days of Saddam. No freedom of opinion. It is like the days of the Baath,” said Hussam Abdel-Kadhim, 25, a vendor who took part in the demonstration, referring to the Baath Party that ruled Iraq for 35 years until Saddam Hussein was ousted a year ago.
Many newspapers and television stations have cropped up since the fall of the Hussein regime. However, a law passed by occupation authorities in June states that a news organization must be licensed to operate in Iraq and that license can be revoked if the outlet publishes or broadcasts content that foments civil disorder, violence, or “advocates alterations to Iraq’s borders by violent means.”
In July, the coalition closed another Baghdad newspaper, Al-Mustaqila, and arrested its office manager for publishing an article July 13 calling for “death to all spies and those who cooperate with the U.S.”
In September 2003, the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council banned two Arabic television networks, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, from broadcasting in Iraq due to coverage that was considered irresponsible. The ban on Al-Arabiya was lifted in January.
The protests outside the Al-Hawza offices died down by Monday morning. No injuries or property damage were reported.