US media control in Iraq and elsewhere

The practice of literally corrupting the free press –at home or abroad– is at odds with everything our nation stands for, but it has become a common practice.


So we have examples like conservative columnist Armstrong Williams being paid to write pieces favorable about school choice (heavily promoted by the ultra-rightist, Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation as a means of undermining public education and undermining teacher unions.)


On one hand, we have Pentagon personnel writing articles for Iraqi newspapers that give a positive spin on US military activities. On the other, former US proconsul for Iraq Paul Bremer shut down about a dozen non-approved newspapers, as Rahul Mahajan and Robert Jensen reported in "Iraqi Liberation: Bush Style" in Z magazine (9/2003) :


…the Coalition Provisional Authority chief, Paul Bremer, gave himself the power to squelch Iraqi media engaged in "incitement," which in practice means clamping down on those who oppose the occupation. Under the headline "Bremer is a Baathist," one paper editorialized, "We’ve waited a long time to be free. Now you want us to be slaves."


In a more lethal attempt at controlling the press, Al-Jazeera TV offices in Kabul, Afghanistan and Baghdad have been bombed by the US military. The Kabul bombing was particularly enlightening about the US high command’s regard for press freedom, because the US military had earlier checked on the precise location of the Al-Jazeera studio supposedly to avoid hitting it, according an Al-Jazeera staffer interviewed on National Public Radio. (A more complete account of US military attacks on journalists appears in the new book  End Times: Death of the Fourth Estate edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair). An Al-Jazeera cameraman has been imprisoned at Guanantanamo for 5 1/2 years because he has refused to act as an informant for the US military, reported Amy Goodman recently on her "Democracy Now!" TV program. Most shockingly, George W. Bush reportedly suggested to Tony Blair the idea of bombing Al-Jazeera’s headquarters in Qatar and was talked out of it by Blair. According to the British Mirror 11/22/05:


"President Bush planned to bomb Arab TV station al-Jazeera in friendly Qatar, a "Top Secret" No 10 memo reveals.


"But he was talked out of it at a White House summit by Tony Blair, who said it would provoke a worldwide backlash. A source said: "There’s no doubt what Bush wanted, and no doubt Blair didn’t want him to do it." Al-Jazeera is accused by the US of fuelling the Iraqi insurgency.



"The attack would have led to a massacre of innocents on the territory of a key ally, enraged the Middle East and almost certainly have sparked bloody retaliation."


However, as with many outrages connected with the Iraq War (e.g., the disappearance of more than $8 billion in cash and some 180,000 AK-47’s and other weapons provided by the US), this stunning revelation about Bush’s impulses has disappeared down the Memory Hole for the media.


But the most popular tactic by US military planners has simply to buy off the local media. It’s relatively easily done, since most poor nations have one dominant paper and these publications tend to be sympathetic to members of the local elite which own them and advertise in them.


Few people were shocked when the Pentagon found nothing wrong in allowing a US-based PR firm to pay Iraqi media to run positive articles about the US occupation.


Still, a handful of na?ve Americans might think it unseemly for our government to hire a PR firm to bribe Iraqi media into carrying US-written propaganda. The US hardly appears to be teaching the Iraqis that democracy is dependent on a free and independent press, unshackled from financial pressures on its news and editorial content.


But the latest white-washing of high-level US conduct in Iraq should not be surprising, both because of the Bush administration’s unwillingness to punish high-level wrongdoing at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, and the central role that paid propaganda has long played in US interventions.


In Iraq, the Pentagon paid $5.4 million to a PR firm called the Lincoln Group to, among other things, pass along money to Iraqi media outlets so that they would carry articles written by US "information operations" personnel. The articles were designed to creative a positive image for the role of the US occupiers and convey a sense of growing stability, even amidst critical electrical, healthcare and water shortages coupled with mounting violence, both random and organized. According to John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton in their book The Best War Ever, the articles were normally drafted by Pentagon staffers and then planted by the Lincoln firm:


"When delivering the stories to media outlets in Baghdad, Lincoln’s staff and subcontractors sometimes posted as freelance reported or advertising executives. The amounts paid ranged from $50 to $2,000 per story placed. All told, the Lincoln Group had planted more than 1,000 stories in the Iraqi and Arab press."




Moreover, Stauber and Rampton report, the work of Lincoln and another PR firm, the Rendon Group, "was closely coordinated with the Pentagon’s psychological operations unit, a 1, 2000 person based in Fort Bragg, North Carolina." The enormous staff and well-equipped media center would be "the envy of any global communications company," the New York Times reported.


The total Pentagon allocation of $57.6 million to the Rendon Group and Lincoln Group "is more than the annual newsroom budget to most American newsrooms to cover all news from everywhere for an entire year," stated Paul McLeary of the Columbia Journalism Review.


But US military officials seemed to be less worried by the divergence between the articles and reality than the possibility that they might be reined in by American law. “The results of the investigation have been awaited with apprehension across the military and within the Bush administration, where officials have been struggling to find a way to improve the American image around the globe in the face of particular hostility in the Muslim world,” the New York Times reported 3/22/07. Clearly, the notion that media reports written by PR experts in Washington will somehow override the daily perceptions of ordinary Iraqis, winning their hearts and minds, is a preposterous one.


In this operation in Iraq, the US was following a pattern used repeatedly around the globe to alter local public opinion and international perceptions by gaining influence with the dominant news outlets In repeated instances, the US has used under-the-table payments to newspaper owners and journalists to turn leading publications against nationalist leaders who were democratically elected but whose economic policies clashed with the interests of US-based multinational corporations.


Notable examples of this have occurred in Iran in the early 1950’s before the 1953 US-British coup against democratically elected President Mohammed Mossadegh; in Chile where El Mercurio was used as a weapon by the US against democratic socialist President Salvador Allende; in Jamaica in the 1970’s where The Daily Gleaner waged a relentless campaign against another democratic socialist, Prime Minister Michael Manley; and in Nicaragua, where La Prensa was an incessant source of attacks on the Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega, democratically elected in 1984.


These papers relentlessly promoted false "news" aimed at undermining the governments’ public standing, reported non-existent shortages to create a "run" on a particular item and thus induce an actual shortage as people hoarded it, defended hostile actions both economic and military by the US, and generally served as a central front against democratic leaders who offended powerful US interests.


No doubt further releases from the CIA files will turn up more interesting episodes. For example, the question of the Venezuelan media’s role in the unsuccessful military coup against Huge Chavez in 2002 will be fascinating to examine.


Thus far, the most complete account of US interference in foreign media to undermine democracy appears to be about Iran. In his book All the Shah’s Men, Steven Kinzer reports that the CIA not only succeeded in regularly planting false stories about Prime Minister Mossadegh in most of the leading newspapers, but also sought to play upon anti-Semitic feelings.


(Ironically, one of the most potent and incendiary charges against current Premier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is that he denies the existence of the Holocaust.) As Kinzer explains:


"Press attacks on Mossadegh reached new levels of virulence. Articles accused him not just of communist leanings and designs on the throne, but also of Jewish parentage and even secret sympathy for the British. Although Mossadegh did not know it, most of the tirades were either inspired by the CIA or written by CIA propagandists in Washington. One of the propagandists, Richard Cottam, estimated that four-fifths of the leading newspapers in Tehran were under CIA influence.


"Any article I would write–it gave you something of a sense of power–would appear about instantly," Cottam recalled later. "They were designed to show Mossadegh as a Communist collaborator and a fanatic."




The current US media operation in Iraq has dropped from the media radar screen as the military situation has shown troubling signs ( declining numbers of combat-ready Iraqi troops and increasing mortar and rocket attacks on the supposedly invulnerable Green Zone) despite the claims about the success of the US "surge" and the success just around the corner if the US extends its military presence.


However, the US media/propaganda operation–built upon crushing dissident messages and secretly disseminating pro-US messages into the new Iraqi media– will continue to represent the utter hollowness of the Bush administration claim that the war and occupation are aimed at "democracy promotion."


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