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January 13, 2004

Some friends who are still in the news-gathering business are concerned over the way things are going in Iraq. This may surprise you, because it's not what you hear daily from the liberals on TV and elsewhere. My friends tell me that the occupation force in Iraq has been steadily losing one battleŚthat of the media. That is the opinion of some present and past staffers of Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, and those people have been around long enough that we can assume they know whereof they speak. Here's a condensed version of their conclusions:

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein there has been an explosion of information sources in the country. More than 200 newspapers are being published, and Iraqis have rushed by the tens of thousands to acquire satellite equipment allowing them to watch Arab and other international news stations. Meanwhile, the coalition's own attempts to broadcast news and information have been woefully deficient. Although it controls Iraq's main broadcast channel, two domestic radio stations and a major newspaper, the authority and its American contractors have failed to capture the Iraqi audienceŚnews programs, in particular, smack of sanitation. The problem is made all the more serious by the fact that Arab satellite broadcasters are at once more skilled in production, more credible with many Iraqis and wildly biased against the U.S. mission. Last week, with the approval of the Bush administration, Iraq's Governing Council reacted by shutting down the Baghdad operation of one of the two leading broadcasters, al-Arabiya. In addition to setting a terrible precedent for press freedom in Iraq, this will only make the underlying problem worse.

Al-Arabiya, like its competitor al-Jazeera, covers Iraq and the Middle East with a slant that is disturbing to Westerners, but typical of the prevailing outlook among the Arab intelligentsia. It heaps attention on violence in the Israeli-occupied territories, and on the resistance to the U.S. invasion, and al-Arabiya recently broadcast a statement it received at its Dubai headquarters that was attributed to the former dictator. This last act was the pretext for its shutdown. Yet the channel was doing no more or less than American networks that report smuggled statements from Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden, not because they support them but because they are news. After this fact was pointed out, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld charged at a press conference that al-Arabiya works in league with the Iraqi resistance, which, he claimed, summons it to cover attacks. But he offered no evidence to back the sensational charge. The channel, like other media outlets, covers the aftermath of attacks, but those who monitor it say it has not broadcast them as they occur.

So our American men and women in uniform and in civilian clothes attempt to reform Iraq without punishing it, and it is proving to be a daunting task. The price of freedom is never small, and rarely is it easy to achieve.