Freedom needs free press
General Ghaleb al-Jazairi, police chief of Najaf, issued an instruction to journalists working in the Iraqi holy city yesterday that sounded remarkably like a threat.
"I have received orders from the interior minister, who demands that all local, Arab and foreign journalists leave the hotel and city within two hours," he said. "We have information that there is a 250kg car bomb targeting them. Therefore you should leave immediately for your own safety."
For their safety, or for the convenience of the Iraqi government? Just over a week ago, Iyad Allawi, the Iraqi prime minister, closed the Baghdad office of al-Jazeera, the Arab television station, on the grounds that it was circulating incitements to violence.
It was not clear how this action would "protect the people of Iraq", as Mr Allawi put it, since al-Jazeera would continue to broadcast throughout Iraq; but supporters of the government were prepared to give the new prime minister the benefit of the doubt.
Yesterday's events raise fresh doubts about the Iraqi government's concept of freedom. There is a fine line between a willingness to act ruthlessly to restore order, and ruthlessness in the pursuit of political expedience.
Having failed to find WMD, the British and American governments seized gratefully on the explanation that they fought the war in order to introduce democracy to Iraq and the Arab world. That excuse will crumble into dust if it turns out that all they have succeeded in doing is to introduce yet another dictator to the region.
Not all yesterday's news was bad. In Baghdad, religious and political leaders met to discuss the setting up of an interim Iraqi assembly in advance of elections next year. The conference was boycotted by the Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, who thereby underlined his contempt for democracy.
Unfortunately, however, Mr al-Sadr is learning to exploit the independent press just as Mr Allawi has decided he can do without it; his artfully-timed request for journalist James Brandon's release was in sharp contrast to the Iraqi government's swaggering insecurity.
Of course, it remains vitally important that January's elections go ahead; but Mr Allawi needs to understand that one of the preconditions of a free election is a free press to report it.
© Telegraph Group Limited
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