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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Eyes Controls for Iraq Press

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- 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," said Mike Furlong, a senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority. "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 U.S. 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 did not know about the Athens meeting. Representatives of the Athens group did not 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 have not 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 a new satirical weekly, Habezbooz. "That's not democracy. It sounds like the same old thing."

Under Hussein, all media were controlled by the government and anyone who strayed beyond the official line was punished. But in the weeks since Hussein'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 tsarist 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 United States already is making clear it is 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."