The Iraqi Governing Council has issued a temporary, two-week ban against Al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, the two main Arab satellite TV networks - a move that points at center state the question of how to forward orderly free speech in the liberated nation.
"Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya will temporarily be excluded from any coverage of Governing Council activities or official press conferences, and correspondents of the two channels will not be allowed to enter ministries or government offices for two weeks," the council said.
The council condemned the two networks as harmful to democracy and tranquility in the country. The Baghdad authorities cited the broadcasters incitement of violence and disorders, and "journalism" that simply amounted to recycling the propaganda of the former Ba'ath dictatorship.
The two networks make it seem like every Iraqi is a jihadist "resistance" fighter looking for an opportunity blow him or herself up, taking along as many of the coalition's troops as possible.
Al-Jazeera could just as well be called Al-Jihad: It typically features visceral anti-American and anti-Western propaganda. Having repeatedly appeared on it as a debater, I can say that fairness, balance and even basic good manners have no place when its commentators weigh in on the United States.
But what do Iraqis outside the Governing Council think? Happily, we can find out - because new voices are being heard on the Iraqi side of the famous "Arab street," from websites to the burgeoning Baghdad daily newspapers.
Representatives of the Arab networks pled innocent to the Governing Council's charges. But some Iraqis were thrilled.
Only days before, an Iraqi commentator named Tayseer Abdul Jabber Al-Alousi wrote, "Most of the Arab satellite channels defend the former dictatorship and justify every one of its degrading crimes against the Iraqi people. This outlook has stimulated certain Arab leaders to pay off dishonest writers with petrodollars.
"Anyone watching these satellite broadcasts will recognize the hatred of our Iraqi people that emanates from them. They encourage terror, assassination, and some of them seek to destroy our national unity through incitement of civil strife between differing religions, sects, and ethnic groups. Some of these satellite networks' correspondents pay people to say things that follow their destructive propaganda line."
Al-Alousi does not write as a Sunni or Shia Muslim, but as a defender of a single Iraqi nationhood without a specific religious agenda. (If you read Arabic, check his columns out on www.geocities.com/Modern_Somerian_Slates.)
He says, "These satellite networks never explain how to help or support the Iraqis. They never talk about the [Coalition] heroes who did a lot for Iraq and who are working hard to establish safety and security. They concentrate on crime, death, bombings, and destruction."
His solution: Let the Iraqis start their own satellite network to broadcast their real thoughts.
Another popular essayist, Abdul Rahim al-Refai, seems to express the views of many Shias on the future of Iraq. He also has things to say few audiences in the rest of the Arab world, let alone Westerners, ever hear.
He warns that Iraq remains threatened by the Saudis, who disseminate their state form of extremist Islam, Wahhabism, around the globe. "According to the Saudi view," al-Refai recently wrote, "Iraq deserves to be punished for being different .¤.¤. the House of Saud oppressed us as well as its own subjects, for 35 years, until Allah brought our liberation. Curses on the House of Saud!" (Arabic readers can check out al-Refai's writings at www.nahrain.com.)
As the U.S.-led coalition faces the challenge of Iraq, one thing has become clear: the technique and technology of peacemaking have lagged far behind those of war. Coalition troops enjoy awesome military advantages, making the most of 21st-century technology.
But their methods of winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis remain bogged down in old habits. For example, Western military officers have been trained to deliver information to the Iraqi public through traditional civil affairs practices: loudspeakers mounted on and leaflets thrown from the backs of jeeps.
Extremist incitement is hard to counter by these methods -- or by direct censorship.
Free -expression as represented by writers like Al-Alousi is the solution to the primitive extremism as purveyed by Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya. It's time to assist Iraqis in creating their own free and responsible media -- delivering a choice, not an echo.
And an Iraq-based satellite network sure sounds like a neat place to start.