by William Fisher
(IPS) NEW YORK -- Congressional leaders who have been touting Iraq's new "free press" as a sign of progress in the troubled country are upset at the Pentagon's admission last week that it has been paying for "good news" stories written by the military and placed in Iraqi media by a Washington-based public relations firm.
In a briefing for the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Republican John Warner of Virginia, the military acknowledged that news articles written by U.S. troops had been placed as paid advertisements in the Iraqi news media, and not always properly identified.
Warner told reporters after receiving a briefing from officials at the Pentagon that senior commanders in Iraq were trying to get to the bottom of a program that apparently also paid monthly stipends to friendly Iraqi journalists.
Warner said there had been no indications yet that the paid propaganda was false. But he said that disclosures that a U.S. company, under contract to the Pentagon, was making secret payments to plant articles with positive messages about the United States military mission could undermine the Bush administration's goals in Iraq and jeopardise Iraq's developing democratic institutions.
"I remain gravely concerned about the situation," he said.
He said he had been told that the articles or advertisements were intended to counter disinformation in the Iraqi news media that was hurting Washington's efforts to stabilise the country.
The story of the Pentagon's latest public relations efforts was revealed last week by the Los Angeles Times newspaper. It said that many of the articles were presented in the Iraqi press as unbiased news accounts written and reported by independent journalists. The stories trumpet the work of U.S. and Iraqi troops, denounce insurgents and tout U.S.-led efforts to rebuild the country.
The Times reported that while the articles are basically factual, they present only one side of events and omit information that might reflect poorly on the U.S. or Iraqi governments. Records and interviews indicate that the U.S. has paid Iraqi newspapers to run dozens of such articles, with headlines such as "Iraqis Insist on Living Despite Terrorism," since the effort began this year, the newspaper wrote.
The articles are received from the military and translated into Arabic and then placed with Iraqi media, both print and broadcast, by the Lincoln Group, a Washington-based PR firm under contract to the Pentagon. Lincoln's website boasts of its extensive network of relationships with Iraqi journalists.
The Lincoln Group defended its practices, saying it had been trying to counter insurgent propaganda with accounts of heroism by allied forces. "Lincoln Group has consistently worked with the Iraqi media to promote truthful reporting across Iraq," Laurie Adler, a company spokeswoman, said in a statement.
Administration and Congressional officials have often emphasized the importance the U.S. places on development of a Western-style free media. Last week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cited the proliferation of news organizations in Iraq as one of the country's great successes since the ouster of President Saddam Hussein.
The hundreds of newspapers, television stations and other "free media" offer a "relief valve" for the Iraqi public to debate the issues of their burgeoning democracy, Rumsfeld said.
The administration is not alone in pointing to the "free" media as evidence of things going well in Iraq. In a Nov. 10 speech, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona touted Iraq's "truly free press."
But Congressional Democrats said the Lincoln Group's activities were the latest example of questionable public relations practices by the administration. In an earlier case, payments were made to columnists, among them conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, who secretly received 240,000 dollars for promoting "No Child Left Behind," the administration's education initiative.
"From Armstrong Williams to fake TV news, we know this White House has tried multiple times to buy the news at home," Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said. "Now, we need to find out if they've exported this practice to the Middle East."
Senator Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, called on the acting Pentagon inspector general to investigate the Lincoln Group's activities to see if they amounted to an illegal covert operation.
"The Pentagon's devious scheme to place favourable propaganda in Iraqi newspapers speaks volumes about the president's credibility gap," Kennedy said. "If Americans were truly welcomed in Iraq as liberators, we wouldn't have to doctor the news for the Iraqi people."
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-CT) recently returned from a trip to Iraq and wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal in which he pointed to Iraq's "independent television stations and newspapers" as evidence of the "remarkable changes" there.
"I have just returned from my fourth trip to Iraq in the past 17 months and can report real progress there. Last week, I was thrilled to see a vigorous political campaign, and a large number of independent television stations and newspapers covering it," he said.
In coordination with Bush's speech last week at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, the administration published a "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq." Among its claims: "A professional and informative Iraqi news media has taken rootˆMore than 100 newspapers freely discuss political events every day in Iraq."
A military spokesman in Iraq said contractors like the Lincoln Group had been used to market the articles to reduce the risk to Iraqi publishers, who might be attacked if they were seen as being closely linked to the military.
Larry Di Rita, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said Gen. Vines and his staff in Iraq insisted that their activities with Lincoln had been "in accordance with all policies and guidelines."
But Martin Kaplan, associate dean at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and director of its Norman Lear Center, told IPS, "Anyone who recalls the good-news propaganda than ran in the state-run communist press even as the Soviet Union was collapsing will find what the Bush administration is doing in Iraq creepy."
"It sends a deeply troubling message about what they think democracy is. But given their demonization of dissent in the United States, it sadly comes as no surprise."
And National Security Advisor Steven Hadley said on Sunday that if the payola allegations are found to be true, it was bad policy and should be discontinued.
Iraqi journalists and their representative organizations have also objected to the practice.
This is not the first time the Pentagon's PR efforts have come under scrutiny. In 2004, the agency found itself engaged in bitter, high-level debate over how far it can and should go in managing or manipulating information to influence opinion abroad.
The issue was whether the Pentagon and military should undertake an official program that uses disinformation to shape perceptions abroad. One of the problems with such programs is that in a world wired by satellite television and the internet, U.S. news outlets could easily repeat misleading information.
Earlier, Rumsfeld, under intense criticism, closed the Pentagon's Office of Strategic Influence, a short-lived operation to provide news items, possibly including false ones, to foreign journalists in an effort to influence overseas opinion.
Now, critics say, some of the proposals of that discredited office are quietly being resurrected elsewhere in the military and in the Pentagon.
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