Occupiers Propose New Media Code in Iraq

By BORZOU DARAGAHI
.c The Associated Press

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - Faced with a freewheeling Iraqi media, the U.S.-led occupation authority is devising a code of conduct for the press, drawing protests from Iraqi journalists who endured censorship under Saddam Hussein and worry for their newfound freedom.

Coalition officials say the code is not intended to censor the media, only to stifle intemperate speech that could incite violence and hinder efforts to build a civil society. The country is just too fragile for a journalistic free-for-all, they say.

``There's no room for hateful and destabilizing messages that will destroy the emerging Iraqi democracy,'' Mike Furlong, a senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority, told The Associated Press. ``All media outlets must be responsible.''

U.S. forces have reason to worry about instability. Divisions run deep in postwar Iraq, a tribal society split between majority Shiite Muslims and minority Sunnis and between Arabs, Kurds and smaller ethnic groups. Plus there is a thick seam of distaste for the American occupation.

The issue is also proving another example of the coordination problems that bedevil the effort to rebuild Iraq. As coalition officials draw up press regulations, the U.S. State Department brought together media people this week in Athens, Greece, to devise a proposed rule book for Iraqi journalists.

Naheed Mehta, a coalition spokeswoman, said occupation officials didn't know about the Athens meeting. Representatives of the Athens group didn't know about the code being drawn up in Baghdad.

Asked about the unofficial proposal put together in Athens, Mehta said, ``There's no reason why that can't feed into our work.''

Coalition officials haven't released details of their planned code. But, Iraqi journalists, when told of the idea, worried that it could lead to censorship.

``How can they say we have a democracy?'' demanded Eshta Jassem Ali Yasseri, 25, editor of the new satirical weekly Habezbooz. ``That's not democracy. It sounds like the same old thing.''

Under Saddam, all media were controlled by the government and anyone who strayed beyond the official line was punished. But in the weeks since Saddam's government fell, new newspapers and other media have sprouted, blanketing the streets with information and opinions - some of which have called for resistance or even violence.

``Under America's watch: raping, killing, burning and looting,'' read a recent headline in Al-Ahrar, a new semiweekly paper. Another newspaper, Al-Haqiqa, this week began publishing excerpts of ``The Protocols of the Elders of Zion'' - an anti-Semitic forgery by the Russian czarist secret police that purported to be a plan for Jewish domination of the world economy.

Mehta said the Coalition Provisional Authority's regulations would ban hate messages, including statements likely to ``incite violence or ethnic or racial hatred.''

``I'm not going to comment on specifics. They are still in the discussion phase,'' she said. ``These are all issues that need to be looked at.''

The Americans already are making clear they are keeping an eye on Iraqi media.

Editors at the new daily newspaper Al-Manar said U.S. soldiers turned up at its offices last week to tell them about a new media monitoring board and ask for their opinion.

``They plan to set up a committee and some jerks will be on it,'' said Mohamad Jubar, the editor in chief. ``I'll fight any attempt at censorship.''

Iraq's postwar journalists and politicians say criticism of authority is at the core of the democratic ideal.

U.S. officials in Iraq insist there will be no attempt to block criticism of the occupation.

The Baghdad television station, for instance, which falls under the coalition's control, has run a number of stories critical of the U.S.-led occupation. Journalists there say they're allowed - and even encouraged - to criticize the occupation authority responsibly.

One recent report showed footage of U.S. soldiers grappling with retirees trying to collect pensions.

``We've done some pretty critical stories on U.S. authorities,'' said Don North, an Arlington, Va.-based adviser to the station who has helped launch independent media in the Balkans and eastern Europe.

``The journalists ask, `It is it all right to criticize the U.S. in our story?''' North said. ``Yes, of course - if you can substantiate the charges.''

Still, to Iraqi journalists, the idea of a code evokes years past when media were tightly controlled by the Ministry of Information and Odai Hussein, Saddam's son and former head of the Iraqi journalists union.

``Is there a media code of conduct in the U.S. or U.K.? Why should there be such a thing here?'' asked Hamid al-Bayati, a leader of the Iran-linked Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Its new newspaper regularly criticizes the occupation.

Furlong said the coalition would not tolerate ``outside forces spreading destabilizing messages,'' an apparent reference to Iran, which has flooded airwaves with radio and television broadcasts critical of the occupation.

Even some Iraqi journalists wonder if the media scramble is excessive.

Jubar, the Al-Manar editor, called the current climate ``a mess,'' and Hamida Smessem, the new dean of Baghdad University's journalism faculty, said the unfettered media is too much, too soon.

``These newspapers need to be organized, Smessem said. ``They're hurting each other with these words.''

As U.S.-led occupation officials draw up a code of conduct for Iraqi media, an international gathering of legal and media experts working independently in Greece sketched out its own ideas this week.

Some key proposals:

Adopt media law with penalties, ranging from public apologies to closure, for defamation, incitement to violence, hate speech.

Set up council to help draw up code of conduct for journalists, resolve complaints against media.

Create commission to regulate media, with authority to allocate radio and TV frequencies, monitor content, hear complaints. Separate board would hear appeals.

Do not require licenses for newspapers, magazines, individual journalists.

Grant public and press access to all documents and decisions of U.S.-led interim governing authority.

Allow private Internet service providers to operate.

Transform state-owned radio and TV into public broadcasting system with editorial independence.

Turn government newspapers over to independent, private owners.