Keep the Press off the Payroll

BY ARSALAN SULEMAN

As the Bush Administration’s failures in Iraq continue to pile up, pressure has increased domestically for a clear exit strategy to be developed. Regardless of the timetable, that exit is not likely to be a graceful one, especially if one were to critically examine what is to be left behind. If one accepts that the goal of invading Iraq was to spread democracy in the Middle East, then recent reports about improper influence on the Iraqi press is a sure sign that the building blocks of Iraq’s nascent democracy are tainted.

On November 30, 2005 the L.A. Times released a story that described how the U.S. military, through subcontractors, is covertly paying Iraqi newspapers to run stories written by American troops in order to improve the image of U.S. troops in Iraq. The story was confirmed last Friday in a briefing to a Senate Republican, as reported by the New York Times on December 3rd. Many of the stories are printed like regular news stories, as if they were written by independent journalists, without a required disclaimer that money was given to have them printed. The stories are a part of the military’s information operations, a key element in the battle for Iraqi “hearts and minds.” It is bad enough that the battle for Iraqi support has miserably failed, but the tactic of meddling with the press will not only make that failure greater, it will also widen America’s credibility gap with the rest of the world.

The role of the press in covering the Iraq war has, from the outset, been rather controversial. The use of embedded reporters during the invasion gave the media access to the war zone, but it allowed the military to control most of the coverage. Given the instability in Iraq, gaining independent access to news stories continues to be a difficult and dangerous task. Ever since the Abu Ghraib scandal broke out, the U.S. has faced the nearly impossible task of regaining some credibility in the eyes of the Iraqis. Paying for positive news stories is a counter-productive way to address this problem. Now that people know that newspapers are being paid to print stories from the U.S. military, any genuinely positive coverage that does come out in Iraq will be read with (even greater) skepticism by readers in the Middle East. On a larger scale, the U.S. has lost even more ground in its ability to lecture other nations about the virtues of democracy. This type of covert use of the media to inject pro-American propaganda in the Iraqi press is not the democratic model of a free press that America should be exporting. A free press must be allowed to print stories without government engaging in nefarious schemes to add stories that praise itself or its policies.

This is a lesson that the Bush Administration should have learned after the No Child Left Behind columnist pay-off scandal. You may remember that columnists, like Armstrong Williams, were paid large sums of money (Mr. Williams reportedly received over $200,000) to promote Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative. Though the Administration gave up this practice at home, it seems to have adopted it abroad in Iraq. Unfortunately, this time the consequences are a further setback to the effort to promote democracy in the Middle East and in Iraq. A recent poll of citizens in six Arab countries conducted by the University of Maryland and Zogby International found that 69% of those surveyed doubted that spreading democracy was the real U.S. objective in Iraq and the Middle East.

The reports of the military paying for printing stories in Iraqi newspapers dovetails with growing speculation and interest in a top secret British memo that may confirm the allegations that President Bush suggested, in discussions with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the bombing of Al Jazeera’s central offices in Qatar. Though more information on this may be forthcoming, such a proposal would be consistent with the Administration’s unfortunate and dangerous attitude towards controlling the media, especially in relation to Al Jazeera, the region’s most popular (and most professional) independent international news network.

The list of failures in Iraq continues to grow, and the Administration’s credibility in its claim to be spreading democracy in the Middle East continues to plummet. Regardless of how America ends up exiting from Iraq, it should not engage in practices that might impair the functional aspects of Iraqi civil society, especially in relation to the press. We should be exporting our best democratic practices, not our worst.

Arsalan Suleman, a 2L, is from Kenner, Louisiana.

Comments