In the midst of continued guerilla warfare against coalition forces, escalating terrorist activity throughout the country, and shortages of even basic resources like electricity and water, there is at least one sign that US President George Bush's war in Iraq has had some positive impact. An Iraqi media once completely controlled by Saddam Hussein's regime now enjoys freedoms unheard of just six months ago, and the number of news sources is burgeoning. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Worldwide reports that some 180 newspapers and other publications are currently available to Iraqi readers. The fare ranges from the Iraqi Communist Party monthly journal to tabloids with full-page spreads of international pop stars. Even a national radio and television network has formed at a time when local stations are slowly struggling to get off the ground.
While the recent changes in the media market reflect significant progress, this first step poses many new problems. Civil libertarians in the United States often point to the US Constitution's First Amendment, which grants freedom of the press, as one of the hallmarks of a healthy democracy. Part of the argument is that a well-informed populace is the best defense against tyranny, and a thriving free media helps educate the public. Yet though the Iraqi people may be receiving more information than ever before, the quality of the country's infant journalistic institutions is far from topnotch. Of course, one might easily raise a similar critique of the US media (or that of any other state), particularly regarding coverage of divisive and controversial issues. Why then even raise the issue so prematurely if the debate could carry over to any state's media?
The difference in Iraq is the heavy-handed role of the US-led coalition--and perhaps a UN presence in the future--in creating a vibrant Iraqi civil society. The practices of the media in Western states may be questioned, but in the here and now, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) wields an immense power to create practices that heretofore have never existed in Iraq, or, for that matter, in a large swath of the Middle East. What, then, are the current problems, and what is the CPA's proposed solution?
Most troubling is the paucity of sources that attempt (or even pretend) to undertake objective, facts-based journalism. Rumors are often reported without substantiation. For example, one recent paper reported that Jews will soon be hoarding Baghdad real estate in the hopes of creating a new West Bank-type settlement, while another asserted that US soldiers were raping women and spreading AIDS. The August 29, 2003, bombing of a Shi'a mosque in Najaf saw no shortage of accusations of US covert involvement. The rapid rise of news outlets in what was previously a media vacuum filled only by Saddam's voice has created a chaotic picture of daily events. Even a potentially accurate report, like one detailing Israeli contingency plans to use Iraqi airspace for air attacks against Iran in the event of a nuclear crisis, loses credibility in this kind of environment. …