Coalition curbs wild Iraqi press

For the first time, coalition authorities in Iraq have shut down an Iraqi newspaper, charging that its publication of a July 13 article calling for "death to all ... who cooperate with the United States" and threatening to publish a list of collaborators' names was a dangerous violation of international law.

A special investigative unit of the Iraqi police on Monday sealed the offices in Baghdad of the semiweekly Arabic newspaper Al Mustaqilla and took into custody its office manager. The manager, whose name was not released, is undergoing questioning.

A search of the premises turned up blank Baath Party membership cards, a sign that the newspaper was "anything but independent," said Coalition Provisional Authority chief spokesperson Charles Heatly.

The case illustrates that despite the commitment of the US-led coalition to a free Iraqi press, there are lines that cannot be crossed. Coalition authorities have warned at least two other newspapers that their coverage was "inciteful to violence" and could prompt action, Heatly said.

New media explosion

More than 100 Iraqi newspapers have sprung up since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, when the press consisted of propaganda strictly controlled by the government. "Under Saddam, the papers were all lies," says one Iraqi student.

Today, all around Baghdad, newspaper vendors peddle a variety of colorful Arabic-language publications that cover everything from electricity shortages and crime to salaries.

While they expose the horrors of the previous regime, including the discovery of mass graves, they also criticize the American-led administration in Iraq.

But despite the sudden surge in the number of media outlets, some observers say the coalition authorities need to do more to reach average Iraqis.

The communication gap is also felt in the new US-appointed Iraqi political council.

"The problem is that in the face of hostile media outlets, you don't have national information systems for either the coalition or the governing council, so our message is lost," says Hoshyar Zebari, political adviser to Masoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and one of the 25 council members.

A recent report issued by the Center for Strategic and International Studies reinforced the message that the CPA needs to communicate more effectively.

The study, commissioned by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, said that "drastic changes must be made to immediately improve the daily flow of practical information to the Iraqi people."

Civil and military authorities say they frequently contact different Iraqi publications to correct what they consider inaccuracies in reporting.

Still, they stress that bias or rumormongering would not be cause to close down a publication.

An extreme case

The case of Al Mustaqilla, however, was egregious, they say.

On July 13, the newspaper printed on page 2 an article titled, "Death to all spies and those who cooperate with the United States; killing them is religious duty."

"Some people have left behind their patriotism, their homeland, and their honor; they have involved themselves in spying for the Zionists and the US occupation force," the article read. "Killing these people is a patriotic and religious duty."

The article further threatened to "publish a list, which names the individuals who are cooperating with the US occupation in order to make the people give their judgment against them."

After learning of the article, coalition authorities and the special investigative unit of the Iraqi police carried out an investigation of the newspaper's coverage, which culminated in the shutdown on Monday.

"This was too dangerous," Mr. Heatly said. "It was also a breach of international law in terms of the absolutely crystal-clear nature of the incitement to murder."

Iraqis who cooperate with the coalition authorities have already been targeted by anti-US guerrillas. Last week, the pro-US mayor of Hadithah was killed when his car was ambushed by attackers firing automatic rifles as he drove away from his office. One of his sons was also killed in the attack.

Earlier this month, in one of the most serious attacks against pro-coalition Iraqis, seven US-trained policemen were killed when a bomb exploded during their graduation ceremony.

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