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Iraq: Governing Council's Ban Of Some Arab TV Sparks Debate On Freedom

Should freedom of the press be curtailed during times of war? That question has arisen in Iraq where the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council yesterday banned the Arab satellite television stations Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyah from covering Council activities for two weeks, saying the networks incited violence against the U.S. occupation and its supporters.

Washington, 24 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A two-week ban on the Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyah television stations was announced yesterday in Baghdad by a spokesman for Ahmad Chalabi, president of the Iraqi Governing Council.

Entifadh Qanbar told a news conference: "The Governing Council issued a resolution or a decree to close Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyah satellite stations for violations and promoting sectarian differences in Iraq, promoting political violence, promoting killing of members of the Governing Council, promoting killing members of the U.S. coalition."

The council said the ban was imposed on two of the most popular television news stations in the Middle East because it suspected the stations had violated the rules by not disclosing information they had about pending attacks on American troops.

Ayad Allawi, the head of the council's security panel, said Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyah had also shown images of masked criminals calling for the liquidation of council members, which he said encourages acts of terrorism. They also broadcast graphic footage of dead U.S. soldiers and Iraqis. Spokesman Qanbar said: "We will not let them show images of U.S. soldiers being ripped apart."

The networks, which compete for the world Arab television audience, deny wrongdoing and say they provide balanced coverage of events in Iraq.

Two media rights groups have already criticized the Council's move. Paris-based Reporters Without Borders called the decision "a bad sign," and said the networks' coverage of extremist groups is part of their work as journalists. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said the Iraqi authorities should be encouraging open media, not limiting it.

The move is sparking debate on the role of media in a fledgling democracy. Is shutting down a news organization, even if only for two weeks, the best example to set as Iraq seeks to build the first Arab democracy?

RFE/RL posed that question to experts in America, which has had its own moments in history where extreme events such as war led to a limiting of democratic liberties.

Marilyn Greene, executive director of the World Press Freedom Committee, a Washington-based group that fights for media rights says, "We feel that this is a very poor example for a democracy to be setting in the name of creating a new democracy."

"To restrict the coverage of the news in an area based on someone's assessment that it might arouse or incite hatred or hateful activities is not, except in the most extreme cases, a reason for banishing a news organization from a coverage area," Greene says.

But isn't Iraq an extreme case? U.S. soldiers are killed or wounded on almost a daily basis. A Governing Council member over the weekend was seriously wounded in an armed attack. In August, a series of terrorist bombings left many killed.

Last week, Al-Arabiyah ran an audio message, purportedly from toppled President Saddam Hussein, which called on Iraqis to take up arms against the U.S.-led coalition forces.

John Samples, the director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute, a private research group in Washington, says the ban may be justified.

"I don't think there's an easy answer to this question. But I do know that the United States' answer has been, in those kinds of extreme situations, is that democracy is not a suicide pact," Samples says.

Samples says democracy faces a possible "suicide" when it refuses to take extraordinary measures, such as suspending legal rights, against forces that threaten its very existence.

U.S. history has a few examples where civil rights were suspended in such extraordinary circumstances. But whether or not it was the right thing is often still not clear.

For example, during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s, President Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, giving him the power to hold prisoners without being answerable to a court of law. And during World War II, when the U.S. was at war with Japan, Japanese-Americans were temporarily interned in camps.

In 1976, then-U.S. President Gerald Ford apologized to Japanese-Americans for their internment, saying it had been wrong and unnecessary. Many of the survivors were later paid reparations.

More recently, civil rights activists have criticized the administration of President George W. Bush for measures that they say have deprived some terror suspects of the legal procedures that defendants are traditionally afforded under American law.

Samples says he's not sure what's best for Iraq, but that in the current chaos, curtailing some press freedom may be necessary: "Right now, you don't have deliberative bodies, you don't have deliberative organs, you don't have the structure of a democracy or a republic in place. You have an occupying power and you have a country that is still obviously very unsettled and still maybe not in the middle of a war, but there's still violence going on. And so, we aren't really at a position where it has been settled. That's the argument that you're in an extraordinary situation, and even the country that is the oldest republic in the world at times of extremes has been willing to at least temporarily suspend it. And maybe the model is 'temporary.'"

Samples adds that if a suspension of rights lasts indefinitely, then democracy in Iraq may never get off the ground.

Greene of the World Press Freedom Committee says, however, it's impossible to create democracy without playing by its rules from the very beginning, regardless of how difficult the situation may be:

"By suppressing conversation about a situation, it doesn't suppress feelings about it; you just drive them underground. The best thing for that situation right now is to air all sides of all arguments and get them out in the open. If they're unfair comments or untrue comments, get them out in the open and rebut them. But driving them underground and driving them away is not taking care of the essential issue," Greene says.

The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority had no immediate comments about the Council's decision.

The Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, which says it covers stories purely based on their news value, has won a reputation for being combative. Jordan, Bahrain, Libya, Morocco, and Algeria are among the countries that have closed Al-Jazeera's offices, expelled its correspondents or withdrawn their diplomats from Qatar in protest of the station's coverage of local events.

Earlier this year, Bush complained to Qatari Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani about Al-Jazeera's broadcasting of tapes by Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the 11 September 2001 attacks on America.