The press unites in ignorance

Observations on Iraq (2)

In Tony Blair's latest lie about Iraq, he claims there is "only one side to be on in what is clearly a battle between democracy and terror". In reality, the 30 January elections will be conducted under a military occupier that controls a puppet government - with the election overseen by the occupying army.

The American writer Edward Herman, co-author with Frank Brodhead of the classic work Demonstration Elections, argues that when an occupying power sponsors an election "it is not free and democratic, because it was imposed by an external force and did not come from demands from within".

Moreover, because the election is externally imposed, participation can be interpreted as implicit approval of the occupation, thus corrupting the vote. And the voters will not include the unknown thousands languishing without trial in US jails, to say nothing of the 100,000 Iraqis killed under the occupation. The continuing conflict will prevent many more from participating - the several hundred thousand refugees from Fallujah, for example. Nor will international observers be able to monitor the election.

Washington-funded organisations with long records of manipulating foreign democracies in favour of US interests are deeply involved. The National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and the International Republican Institute are part of a consortium, to which the US government has given more than $80m for political and electoral activities in Iraq. Both have been busy selecting leaders and organisations amenable to US goals. The first is led by the former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, the second by the Republican senator John McCain.

The interim government has forced the al-Jazeera TV station and critical newspapers to shut down. The former US proconsul Paul Bremer banned all reporting on the rebirth of the Ba'ath Party and all protests calling for an end to the occupation. The Baghdad-based journalist Borzou Daragahi reports that Iraqi reporters are under threat from US troops, Iraqi police and insurgents: "We're unable to get access to anybody," one journalist told him. "We're frightened." The same is true of electoral candidates, who are unable to canvass voters - who will not, therefore, be able to make any kind of informed choice.

While US-subsidised media broadcast freely, officials working for the interim prime minister and former CIA asset, Iyad Allawi, have been handing journalists envelopes stuffed with $100 notes for simply turning up to press conferences.

A search of the LexisNexis media database shows there has been not one substantive analysis of press freedom in Iraq under occupation anywhere in the UK press over the past six months. And yet the media are almost unanimous in describing the elections as democratic and free.

On BBC Television's main evening news this month, David Willis talked of "the first democratic election in 50 years". A 7 January Guardian editorial referred to "the country's first free election in decades". "The terrorists will do all they can to destroy democratic elections," the Times's editors noted on 10 October. "Iraq's first democratic election is unfolding under the shadow of a deadly insurgency," the Financial Times observed in December. The Daily Telegraph wrote of "the first democratic elections", the Sunday Telegraph of "the first democratic elections there for more than 50 years", the Independent of how "democratic and free elections can bring a hope of peace". The Express, Mail and Sun all took the same line.

The Guardian comment editor, Seumas Milne, has even had the gall to complain that the elections "are routinely described by the BBC as Iraq's first free and democratic elections".

How convenient to take a free shot at the media's favourite punchbag, when not just Milne's own paper, but his entire industry, is pumping out exactly the same crass propaganda.

David Edwards is co-editor of www.medialens.org