by Peter Preston Posted Wed, Sep 1 2004
Freedom has sharp edges. It insists, often painfully, that you choose. It can scorn compromise. It raises the most profound – and wrenching – press issues almost indifferently. It separates journalists and undermines authority. Freedom is a sacred torch and a pain in the backside.
Of course, any comment on the day-to-day agonies of Baghdad and Basra is bound to be out-of-date almost before you press “Print.” But there has been a recurrent theme as the Iraqis have taken back control of their country: a ban on Al-Jazeera, a ban on reporting from inside Najaf, constant friction with the police and a frown when the press goes a word or picture too far.
This freedom comes nervously, grudgingly. It teeters on the brink of repression. It cannot be taken for granted.
Is that understandable? Naturally so. Iraq is still gripped by the threats of terrorism. The ability of the state to govern itself remains under question. Assassins with bombs put authority at risk. Here are the sharpest edges of freedom.
Journalists can feel a certain pride when an autocracy disintegrates, for what you see then is a sudden blossoming of freedom. Newspapers, magazines and broadcasting stations all come to life like spring after winter. The people have a need to know, and journalists have the duty to inform them. Something instinctive and utterly natural happens.
That was the case in Spain and Portugal after their dictatorships crumbled 30 years ago. It was the case all over Eastern Europe after the Soviet Union fell. There is nothing surprising about the desire of ordinary Iraqis to report the world as they see it, to fill the information vacuum left by Saddam. Far ahead of any elections, it bears testimony to a desire for freedom and thus for democracy.
But that is not the way governments always see it. For them, especially in the earliest years, freedom is a threat as well as a boon, a force that cannot be controlled. They, too, react instinctively. These are not skirmishes on the surface of affairs, though. They shape the future. They tell the people of Iraq what to expect. They begin to question the nature of the administration that holds the reins.
Nobody should be too starry-eyed. The outpouring of freedom in Europe after the Wall came down has seen mixed outcomes. Many of the former client states have changed utterly and are part of the European Union now. That doesn’t mean that their press freedoms are always secure, but it does mean that a certain freedom has been established. You can’t say that, however, about a Russian situation that contracts and stultifies year after year, about a country where freedom seems to hover perpetually on the brink of retreat.
Nothing can ever be taken for granted. Freedom doesn’t grow of its own accord. Spring can skip summer and turn coldly autumnal in a trice, which is why the information game in Iraq is so crucial.
Where are the inevitable bounds on freedom of expression? We can all draw our lines in the sand. The right to shout “Fire” in a crowded theater, the right of some African radio station to foment genocide… Somehow or other, there has to be a final recourse to censorship or self-censorship. The problem is not “when,” however, but always “whether.” How much latitude can be tolerated by the audiences most involved, the readers and viewers themselves? And in every fledgling democracy, the boundaries need pushing back.
Treat Iraq as a general case, a symbol of potential change. The coalition troops that toppled Saddam Hussein brought embedded reporters in their tanks with them. Something symbolic there! Their civil administrators talked freedom not merely for Iraq but for many other states in the Middle East, too. This is the spread of democracy for purpose, the pursuit of freedom as a road to peace and tolerance.
I don’t automatically respond to everything Al-Jazeera puts out. It often seems to represent a different, even alien, view of a very different culture. It isn’t the “truth” according to CNN or the BBC. Any lover of press freedom knows that such differences matter. In polarized societies, the spectrum of opinion becomes vital. Unless we see the tensions within Iraq through Arab eyes, we shall understand nothing.
Meanwhile, little things signify a lot. The banning and barring of access say that freedom has many, rather random, limits, and that debate can only take place when it operates benignly within these limits, that there is no public right to know. The message is the precise opposite of freedom’s own message. It promises, at best, a brighter future, but not just yet.
Do Western reporters always view the threats to freedom as a seamless robe, one that affects them and Arab journalists equally? Sometimes they find common cause, but sometimes they turn away from a shrill newspaper or small magazine in trouble. Some cases are important, apparently, whilst others may be set aside as too factional, too wild, too trouble-making.
But here’s where lines do have to be drawn. Time after time, you know that the robe is indeed seamless. Time after time, petty repression leads to full-scale persecution; the need to know and the right to be informed are brushed aside as luxuries. Those are the early warnings of freedom’s failures, the sharp edges that bring self-inflicted wounds.