Released documents show thinking behind censorship by US occupation in Iraq

During the first months of the US occupation of Iraq, it was occasionally reported that the US occupation authorities had given itself the right to ban media outlets and seize newspapers it accused of inciting violence against US troops and of promoting the Iraqi Baath Party. According to Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) Order 14, signed by CPA leader L. Paul Bremer on 10 June 2003:

Media organizations are prohibited from broadcasting or publishing original, re-broadcast, re-printed or syndicated material that:

a) incites violence against any individual or group, including racial, ethnic or religious groups and women;
b) incites civil disorder, rioting or damage to property;
c) incites violence against Coalition Forces or CPA personnel;
d) advocates alterations to Iraq’s borders by violent means;
e) advocates the return to power fo the Iraqi Ba’ath Party or makes statements that purport to be on behalf of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party.

A newly released PDF (mirrored here) posted on the Defense Department’s FOI site alongside other documents relating to the US occupation of Iraq reveals the US media strategy for Iraq. There are a couple of pages I found to be particularly interesting. They relate to the March 2004 closing of the Shia news weekly Al Hawza, which was associated with the nationalist, anti-US cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

On pages 68 and 69 of the PDF, there is a “draft letter” by Bremer addressed to Al Hawza‘s chairman:

This action is based upon my determination that Al-Hawzah has printed numerous articles that have falsely claimed wrongdoing by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and Coalition Forces and that the repeated nature of these false articles demonstrates intent to cause public unrest and to incite violence against Coalition Forces and CPA personnel in violation of CPA Order Number 14, as evidenced by the facts set forth below.

On February 26, in an article on “Terrorist Operations in Iraq that Targeted Iraqi Army Volunteer Centers,” Al-Hawzah claimed that the February 10 explosion in Al-Iskandariyah was triggered by a missile “launched by an Apache helicopter” and not by a car bomb, “as the US Forces announced.” In fact, the report is false; no U.S. forces attacked the building.

In the same issue, an article entitled “Bremer in the Footsteps of Saddam” stated that the Coalition is “pursuing a policy of starving the Iraqi people to make them preoccupied with procuring their daily bread” so that they do not have “the chance to demand their political and individual freedoms.” Again, this report is false. The Coalition has undertaken unprecedented efforts to feed and care for the people of Iraq, restore and improve the country’s infrastructure, and lay a foundation of political, economic, and individual freedom hitherto only dreamt about in Iraq.

Al-Hawzah’s false articles about the CPA and Coalition Forces are not of recent origin. As long ago as August 7, 2003, the paper charged that the U.S. “did not come just to overthrow Saddam or take oil,” but also “to destroy the whole cultural, moral, and humanitarian structure of the Iraqi people’s civilization.” Again, on August 21 of last year, Al-Hawzah decried a Coalition incursion into Baghdad’s Al-Sadr City, charging: “The U.S. administration has not ceased fighting Islam and its symbols wherever they may be. Last Wednesday’s incident has proven its insistence on its despicable crimes.” Again, the claims are totally baseless.

Bremer’s defense of the CPA’s reconstruction efforts is rather hilarious considering all of the accounts of corruption and malfeasance in mainstream Western publications and the numerous reports of the US government’s own Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. The only factually incorrect claim made by Al-Hawzah that Bremer objects to is its allegation that the 10 Feburary 2004 explosion was caused by US forces. Bremer’s other examples of purported falsehoods are standard anti-imperialist claims that appear to be backed up by the US’ documented efforts to forcibly liberalize Iraq’s economy and open up its oil fields to foreign (mainly Western) companies and investors.

On page 15 of the PDF there are two emails from US diplomat Richard Jones that show his thinking on the matter.

Here is one sent on 9 March 2004:

This rag belongs to Muqtada; I’m tempted to say we should go for stronger measures, but I hope that by the end of 30 days we’ll have taken other measures against him anyway. What do you think?

Here is another sent on 10 March 2004:

I’m totally convinced we should hit them as hard as we can. But the stress is on the “we.” I think we should simply shut them down ourselves rather than wait for the GC [Iraqi Governing Council] which may be hesitant to appear so blatantly and publicly on our side. It’ll just make them seem more like our lackeys and open them to attack from other similarly scurrilous newspapers. Plus, us moving against MAS’ paper will send a good strong signal that we may move more aggressively against him …

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