Censorship Fears Rise In Iraq

Iraq's prime minister has said he wants the government to register Internet sites and ban some books. This has raised fears that the door may be closing on what has been one of the most open media landscapes in the Middle East. On Friday, Iraqi journalists, writers and booksellers took to the streets of Baghdad to protest.

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GUY RAZ, host:

The prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, has proposed new censorship laws. He wants the government to register Internet cafes and ban certain books. It's raising fears that he's trying to shut the door on one of the most open media landscapes in the Middle East.

The U.S.-led invasion in 2003 ushered in a communications revolution in Iraq. This past week, Iraqis took to the streets to protest the proposal.

NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Baghdad.

DEBORAH AMOS: The demonstrators chose a place in central Baghdad that sends an unmistakable message. Al-Mutanabbi Street, a literary center for generations, is lined with book shops, as well as an outdoor market that does a lively trade in racy romance novels and political magazines.

(Soundbite of protest)

Unidentified People: (Speaking foreign language).

AMOS: Here, booksellers joined journalists and authors for a rousing protest. Over the past few months, the government has been quietly proceeding on laws to register Web sites and ban certain books, but opponents say it's a first step to limit freedom of expression.

Mr. IMAT AL-KAFAZI(ph): I'm afraid of the return of the censorship.

AMOS: Iraqi journalist Imat Al-Kafazi.

Mr. AL-KAFAZI: It's not enough to say, for national security, I cannot accept this book or that book. No. This thing will remind us of Saddam era.

AMOS: When Saddam's era was swept away after the U.S.-led invasion, new media outlets came rushing in. Even the poorest neighborhoods sprouted rooftop satellite dishes. For the first time, Iraqis could feast on Lebanese music videos and Turkish soap operas. They soon discovered Web site porn and online gambling. But in this media revolution, more dangerous ideas appeared, promoting hatred and sectarian violence.

The prime minister's proposed law would prohibit Web sites that deal with terrorism but also drugs, gambling, negative comments about Islam and pornography.

Hanna Edwar(ph), a human rights activist, says these vague categories are aimed at stifling Iraq's diversity.

Ms. HANNA EDWAR (Human rights Activist): This really hinders our democracy's diversity of expression, diversity of opinion. Without it, I feel that we are going again to some dictatorship.

AMOS: Iraq's National Library and Archives has already been a target for government censors. Saad Eskander, the executive director, tells the story in his office filled with books. He's rescued old texts hidden in basements and personal libraries written in Hebrew from the day when Iraq had the largest Jewish community in the region. He's also rescued books written by Saddam Hussein. The new censors wanted those books gone.

Mr. SAAD ESKANDER (Executive Director, Iraq National Library and Archives): I said, no. You have no right, even they are written in a way that not acceptable to us, but they are an Iraqi (unintelligible).

AMOS: A part of Iraq's heritage, Eskander says. He won that fight for now.

Mr. ESKANDER: It reflect our mentality. It's part of our historical memory and should be read and studied and analyzed in order to prevent the emergence of such dictatorship and such brutality in our society.

AMOS: Which is why he says he'll stand against the prime minister's proposed censorship law.

Mr. ESKANDER: Even if the Iraqi government imposes censorship, the National Library will not obey the orders. First, they start with morality and then at politics and other things.

AMOS: For Saad Eskander, freedom of expression is worth fighting for.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Baghdad.

RAZ: Freedom of expression was something Ken Bacon fought for. He was a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Pentagon spokesman in the Clinton administration and husband of our longtime colleague here at NPR, Darcy Bacon.

Ken died on Saturday. He was a familiar face on television throughout the late 1990s. You might remember the trademark bowties he wore when he stood at the podium in the Pentagon briefing room. When he left government, Ken became president of Refugees International. I was lucky enough to meet Ken Bacon a few times and to correspond with him over e-mail.

He wanted to hear what he called the ground truth about the situation for civilians in places I was covering: Iraq, Afghanistan and Gaza. But perhaps more than anyone else, Ken focused America's attention on the conflict in Darfur, a place he visited several times.

Ken Bacon was an advocate for those who were too poor and too powerless to have a voice. He was 64 years old.

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