Freedom of the press separates us from them

Posted: Mar 25, 2003 12:00 AM

 “Operation Iraqi Freedom” is underway.  And as our troops move across Iraq, we at home will know almost everything they are doing, practically in real time. That’s because journalists are “embedded” into just about every unit that will cross the border. They’ll go where the troops go, eat what the troops eat, face what the troops face.

 Those correspondents carry the latest technology. Laptop computers and satellite phones have replaced the notebooks and telegraphs reporters relied on in earlier wars. Cameras are so small they can easily be carried in a backpack. Pictures shot in the field can be uploaded via phone line or satellite to network headquarters in Atlanta or New York within seconds.
And it’s not just the old “big three” TV networks who will be represented. Such unlikely outlets as MTV and Hustler magazine have correspondents embedded with our forces. Viewers, listeners and readers in the U.S. will be swamped with war coverage.

 But we won’t be depending completely on the hundreds of correspondents in the field.  Administration officials will be holding round-the-clock briefings in Washington. We can expect most, if not all, of those to be carried live.

It all means Gulf War II (or whatever we decide to call it) will be the best-covered war of all time.
That’s the American way. Even when we go to war, we bend over backwards to make sure voters at home are aware of what’s being done in their name by forces overseas.
Compare that to life in Iraq. There will be reporters in Baghdad during the war, but they won’t be keeping an eye on Iraqi military units. It’s the Iraqis who will be keeping an eye on them.

Foreign journalists in Baghdad are required to work from the Ministry of Information building, which also houses Iraqi State TV. At least one “minder” is assigned to each correspondent, to make sure he doesn’t go anywhere he’s not supposed to, or speak to anyone who’s not authorized to speak.

Iraq only increased its censorship during the run-up to war. As CNN’s Nic Robertson reported on the air March 17, “In the last couple of days, we've been given an additional 'guide,' if you will, who sits in our office. Somebody from another section of the government here to watch over us, if you will. Whenever we go out to file anything, we have to go out with these officials.”

It’s safe to suspect we won’t be seeing any real investigative reporting from Baghdad until after Allied troops arrive.

Sadly, Iraq looks like an open society compared with another member of the Axis of Evil -- North Korea.
Dutch journalist Peter Tetteroo spent six years trying to get permission to visit there. When he finally got in for a week in 2000, he found the most repressive regime in the world. His work is presented in a documentary, “Welcome to North Korea,” airing this month on Cinemax.

Tetteroo was not allowed to leave his hotel without government “guides.” They escorted him to various monuments and museums dedicated to Kim Il Sung, the country’s heavy-handed dictator from 1948 until his death in 1994. He was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Il, making North Korea the world’s first monarchial dictatorship. Syria followed those proud footsteps when Basher Assad succeeded his father Hafaz in 2000.
 Unfortunately, Tetteroo wasn’t allowed to visit the countryside, where millions of Koreans have starved to death in recent years. He comes closest to real life in Pyongyang when he aims his camera out the window, probably without the permission of his minders.

School children spend six hours each day practicing -- not their letters or numbers, but getting ready for a parade in honor of “Dear Leader” Kim. A cop goes though the motions of directing traffic -- but there are no cars on the road. A modern luxury hotel stands 45 stories tall -- and houses only about a dozen guests. Oh, and watch what you say -- every beautiful room is bugged.

A number of people have asked why we’re going to war in Iraq. One of the main reasons is to make sure dissenters always have the right to ask that sort of question. We’re a free society -- superior, quite frankly, to Iraq and North Korea, because the First Amendment severely restricts our government’s ability to control information.

The rest of the world will be a better place when we’ve successfully exported that openness.