Friday, April 16, 2010

Iraq's continued war on the press

A steel door opened on one of the 18 floors of the Palestine Hotel. Behind it was another. Then a guard with a friendly smile and a machine gun. He welcomed the guest to his boss' room. This is where Fallah al-Dahabi, the Iraqi editor-in-chief of Alhurra TV, has been holed up for the past three years.
He has decorated the walls with pictures of his TV appearances, he purchased a microwave and a fitness machine, he has a barbecue on the balcony and a flat-screen television no other guest at the hotel has. But it is still a hotel room, a refuge with room service. Home is somewhere else.
This chief editor and his station were supposed to become the face of freedom and democracy in the Arab world after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Alhurra, 'the Free One', had to become a station where everything could be said, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, without commercial interruptions. The US government set it up in 2004 and has since invested 500 million dollars of taxpayers' money. It hoped to create the Arab equivalent of Radio Free Europe, the anti-communist station that broadcast information across the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. But Alhurra has proved no match for giants like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya. Less than 2 percent of viewers watch it occasionally. Most deem it too pro-Western, too biased and unreliable. In Iraq, the channel and its chief editor have become targets for blind hatred.

The above is from Bram Vermeulen's "Free speech behind armoured doors in Iraq" (NRC Handelsblad) and the US-created 'democratic' Iraq has no been conducive to a free press. Which may explain why so many Western faux reporters flourished so early on in Iraq. Monday, Human Rights Watch released the following on press freedoms (or the lack of them ) in Iraq:

The Iraqi government should suspend media regulations that impose tight restrictions on the country's broadcast media and revise them to comply with international standards, Human Rights Watch said in a letter today to the official Communication and Media Commission (CMC).

The Commission began enforcing the regulations ahead of the March 7, 2010, parliamentary elections ostensibly to silence broadcasters who encourage sectarian violence, but the regulations are vague and susceptible to abuse. The regulations should be revised to define in detail all restrictions on and give meaningful guidance to broadcasters by clearly delineating their responsibilities, Human Rights Watch said. While the government can prohibit and punish speech that constitutes direct incitement of violence, the broad and vague wording of the regulations, such as prohibiting "incitement of sectarianism," falls short of international norms governing freedom of expression. "These broadcast regulations are a real setback for media freedom in Iraq," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "These restrictions open the door to politically motivated discrimination in the regulation and licensing of broadcasters." Over the months leading to the parliamentary elections, the government restricted freedom of expression in a number of ways. It clamped down on scrutiny of public officials, denied media accreditation to journalists, and sued media outlets that criticized government officials. In addition, police and security forces have harassed, arrested, and assaulted numerous journalists.

The regulations appear to give the CMC unfettered power to halt broadcast transmissions, close offices, seize equipment, revoke licenses, and levy fines on broadcasters. The rules empower the agency to cancel licenses even after the first minor violation of the licensing terms. In its letter, Human Rights Watch asked the agency to ensure that punishments are proportionate to the offense, increasing only in step with the severity and repetition of offenses. The rules should also give license applicants a clear and expeditious path to appeal denied applications.

Human Rights Watch also urged the agency to stop requiring broadcasters to provide it with a list of employees, as this poses an unacceptable security threat to media workers. Iraqi journalists already operate in an extraordinarily unsafe environment. Since 2003, at least 141 journalists have died in Iraq, some in politically motivated murders. Muaid al-Lami, head of the Iraqi Journalists' Syndicate, has been the subject of two assassination attempts, including one last month. Journalists in Iraq who wish to stay anonymous should be able to do so, Human Rights Watch said.

"Not only do the regulations give this agency enormous power to shut down broadcasters for minor and first-time transgressions, but they place the lives of Iraqi journalists at greater risk," Stork said. "The Media Commission should suspend the regulations until it fixes them."

While the press is curtailed, attempts at the tag sale on Iraq's assets continue unfettered. Dow Jones reports the country's Ministry of Oil is no longer looking for "recoverable five-year soft loans" but instead "signature bonuses." Hey, maybe like a certain actor who priced himself out of any worthy part, they could start demanding $500,000 just to consider an offer? Ahmed Rasheed, Michael Christie and Keiron Henderson (Reuters) note that the signature bonuses are being cut and provide the example of how $300 million was supposed to be the fees paid by "Italy's Eni and its partners Occidental Petroleum Corp and South Korea's KOGAS" has been dropped to $100 million. AP notes that the Ministry of Oil plans to allow bidding on three natural gas fields. The fields have not yet been identified but they are expected to be later this year. Tamsin Carlisle (UAE's National Newspaper) adds, "Royal Dutch Shell, Total and Korea Gas Corporation (KOGAS) are favoured bidders, said Sabah Abdul Kadhim, the head of the oil ministry’s petroleum contracts and licensing directorate." Along with the favored, the Ministry Oil plans to pick the remaining bidders (for a total of 15) "from the 44 that qualified to bid in Iraq's first two post-war auctions of oil and gas licences last year." And Russel Gold (Wall St. Journal) notes that Paris-based Schlumberg Ltd is currently beefing up its staff with the intent of stationing 300 employees in Iraq by this summer and twice that amount by December 2010. War is big business which is why countries wage it -- even over the objections of its citizens.

As noted yesterday, Binghamton, New York is getting a counter at City Hall which will count the financial costs to US tax payers of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Post-Standard's editorial board explains:

Binghamton Mayor Matt Ryan made a startling discovery a while back: By this September, Binghamton residents will have contributed $138.6 million to help pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- or rather, that’s their share of the debt piled up by these military engagements. And that’s not counting any supplemental billions requested by President Barack Obama and approved by Congress later this year.

And they explain that people can check the costs to their own communities by visiting Cost Of War. George Basler (Press & Sun-Bulletin) reports:

The counter is being funded entirely by private contributions from the Broome County Cost of War Project, a local grassroots organization.
At Wednesday's event, Ryan said, he believes he has the authority as mayor to hang the sign.
Legal questions surrounding the sign could soon be moot. Councilman Sean Massey, D-5th District, plans to introduce a resolution at Monday's council work session to have the council support the sign. He thinks a majority of the seven-member council - all Democrats, like the mayor - will support it.
But, Massey said, he doesn't think the council has to approve the sign. He said Ryan, as mayor, has control over the physical site of city hall.

WBNG News quotes the mayor stating, "That's where all the money comes from and we need up paying all the unfunded mandates. We end up not having the money to and that's where the national priorities come in they have to change."

March 7th, Iraq held elections. They've yet to form a government (leading to some huffing and puffing on the 'delay' but compared to 2006, no times has yet passed) and Nouri al-Maliki (whose political slate came in second, behind Ayad Allawi's) is huffing about foreign interference. Trend News reports:

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in an interview to Arabic television channel "Al-Arabiya" said that Saudi Arabia doesn't take any steps to intervene in forming the next Iraqi government. Talabani statements were voiced amid Vice President Tariq Al-Hashimi's visit to Riyadh, who is also nominated in the elections held March 7. As a result of voting, the two largest political blocs, headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and the current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki got an equal number of seats in parliament. Allawi's Al Iraqiya Coalition won majority of votes. However, due to the fact that the party can not form a government alone, it is supposed that the next Iraqi leadership will be coalition.
The real competition in the held elections was actually between pro-Arab and pro-Iranian political forces, Ghassan Attiyah, the head of the Iraq foundation for development and democracy believes. "All the activities after the elections in Iraq should be considered in the context. The elections didn't determine any winner, so they have to form a coalition," - Attiyah told Trend. Iranians spent millions on these elections while Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries have actively supported Iyad Allawi - a secular Shiite, because the prime-minister should be Shiite.
Allawi, who headed Iraq's transitional Government in 2004, belongs to the secular coalition and criticizes Iran, which tries to exert pressure through the rest of the religious Shiite parties on forming a new Iraqi government.

Francis A. Boyle is an international law expert and law professor. He and Nanjundiah Sadanand are guests on the latest TalkNationRadio. Click here for the episode or, if the embed code works, stream below. Boyle's segment is on his International Criminal Court complaint against Bully Boy Bush and assorted other War Criminals serving under Bush.

TV notes, Washington Week begins airing on many PBS stations tonight (and throughout the weekend, check local listings) and joining Gwen around the table this week are Peter Baker (NYT), Gloria Borger (CNN), John Dickerson (CBS News and Slate), and David Wessel (Wall St. Journal). And Gwen's column this week is "Debating the Debate" which is worth reading (I'm recommending it). Remember that the show podcasts in video and audio format -- and a number of people sign up for each (audio is thought to be so popular due to the fact that it downloads so much quicker). If you podcast the show, remember there is the Web Extra where Gwen and the guests weigh in on topics viewers e-mail about. And also remember that usually by Monday afternoon you can go to the show's website and stream it there (including Web Extra) as well as read the transcripts and more. Meanwhile Bonnie Erbe will sit down with Debra Carnahan, Avis Jones-DeWeever, Sabrina Schaeffer, Tara Setmayer and Jessica Vaughan on the latest broadcast of PBS' To The Contrary to discuss the week's events. And at the website each week, there's an extra just for the web from the previous week's show and this week's it's on the announced retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens. For the broadcast program, check local listings, on many stations, it begins airing tonight. And turning to broadcast TV, Sunday CBS' 60 Minutes:

21st Century Snake Oil
"60 Minutes" hidden cameras expose medical conmen who prey on dying victims by using pitches that capitalize on the promise of stem cells to cure almost any disease. Scott Pelley reports. (This is a double-length segment.)

In a rare sit-down interview, Oscar-winning actor Al Pacino talks to Katie Couric about his films and how he prepares for them, including his upcoming movie in which he stars as Dr. Jack Kevorkian.

60 Minutes, Sunday, April 18, at 7 p.m. ET/PT.

Radio. Today on The Diane Rehm Show (airs on most NPR stations and streams live online beginning at 10:00 am EST), Diane is joined the first hour (domestic news roundup) E.J. Dionne (Washington Post), Linda Wertheimer (NPR), Byron York (Washington Examiner). For the second hour (international news roundup), Diane is joined by Elise Labott (CNN), Martin Walker (UPI) and David Wood (PolitcsDaily).

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