IN HINDSIGHT, maybe it shouldn't be surprising that the Pentagon has been secretly paying Iraqi journalists and news organizations to write and run positive stories about the war. After all, this is an administration that paid a U.S. columnist and peddled phony video news releases at home, too. But saying it was predictable makes it no less loathsome and damaging to find that the Bush administration has treated the Iraqi press, the Iraqi people and the very idea of Iraqi democracy with even greater contempt.
The Los Angeles Times reported this week that U.S. military "information operations" troops have been writing pro-U.S. articles and handing them to a Washington firm that translates them into Arabic and places them in Baghdad newspapers -- sometimes for a fee and without revealing the true source. Operatives from the firm "sometimes pose as freelance reporters or advertising executives when they deliver the stories to Baghdad media outlets," according to the Times. It said the military also has bought an Iraqi newspaper and taken control of a radio station "to channel pro-American messages to the Iraqi public." Yesterday, Knight Ridder added a new morsel: that U.S. Army officers created an outfit called the Baghdad Press Club that pays members as much as $200 a month to churn out positive pieces about American military operations.
The problem with this propaganda, as senior military officials who blew the whistle on it understood, is that it undermines the very effort it is trying to promote. An essential element of a democracy is a free press, not one controlled or covertly manipulated by government. As a senior Pentagon official told the Times, "Here we are trying to create the principles of democracy in Iraq. Every speech we give in that country is about democracy. And we're breaking all the first principles of democracy when we're doing it." That shouldn't have been so hard to figure out.