Is the price of freedom $95,000?
Press freedom should not be bought at all, and never cheaply. Freedom has been fought for in blood, sear, tears and sacrifice. The US bought democracy for Iraq expensively. It lost treasure, it lost moral authority, it paid a dearer price than perhaps was warranted. However, that hard fought win is now under threat.
The British newspaper the Guardian has just been fined $95,000 for running an article critical of Prime Minister Maliki. The Iraqi court deemed the article defamatory, though in reality that seems highly questionable. The decision was made despite testimony by three expert witnesses from the Iraqi journalists’ union. They all testified that the article was neither defamatory nor insulting, and no damages were warranted. A high cost paid to earn that liberty is at risk it appears, and a measly sum demanded for recompense . Press freedom is an integral arch of a sustainable democracy and any attack on it should be severely resisted. This is something Maliki may yet have to learn.
The Guardian said it would appeal against the verdict. The judgment was heavily criticised as a further blow against the freedom of Iraq’s already embattled news media.
The British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, said: “I was very concerned to hear reports of the court ruling. Media freedom is vital in any democracy. If the case goes to appeal, I ask the Iraqi authorities to ensure that their courts, which are independent, follow due process in accordance with the Iraqi constitution”.
Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, said: “This is a dismaying development. Prime Minister Maliki is trying to construct a new, free Iraq. Freedom means little without free speech – and means even less if a head of state tries to use the law of libel to punish criticism or dissent. We will vigorously contest this judgment.”
The article in question, by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, an award-winning staff correspondent for The Guardian, quoted three unnamed members of the Iraqi national intelligence service as saying Mr Maliki was beginning to run Iraqi affairs with an authoritarian hand.
Mr Maliki has repeatedly portrayed press freedoms as essential to nation-building efforts in Iraq’s young democracy.