U.S. military covertly pays to run stories in Iraqi press

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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The LA Times reported today that the U.S. is secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories written by American troops. While these stories are mostly factual, they present only one side of events and blend out parts that don't reflect favourably on U.S. or Iraqi governments.

According to the report, the Pentagon hired the Lincoln Group, a Washington-based firm that translates the stories into Arabic and places them in Baghdad newspapers. When published, many of these articles are not marked as originating from the U.S. military, but presented as unbiased news reports, written by independent Iraqi journalists. The LA times quotes a senior military official, stating that "Absolute truth was not an essential element of these stories."

Earlier this year, the Bush administration came under criticism for distributing videos and news stories in the United States without identifying the federal government as its source, and paying American journalists to promote administration policies. The Government Accountability Office has characterized these practices as "covert propaganda."

U.S. law only prevents the military from planting propaganda through American news outlets. Critics charge, however, that in the modern media environment, stories written for foreign news sources are likely to leak into American news.

The response from the Pentagon was mixed, with Rumsfeld's spokesperson Bryan Whitman saying that he was unaware of such practice, noting that "this article raises some question as to whether or not some of the practices that are described in there are consistent with the principles of this department."

On the other hand, Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a military spokesman in Iraq, said "This is a military program initiated with the Multi-National Force to help get factual information about ongoing operations into Iraqi news."

"An important part of countering misinformation in the news by insurgents," added Johnson. "I want to emphasize that all information used for marketing these stories is completely factual."

U.S. spokesperson Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch defended the practices.

"We do empower our operational commanders with the ability to inform the Iraqi public but everything we do is based on fact, not based on fiction," said Lynch.

John Schulz, a former executive with Voice of America called the military program scary.

"The Bush administration, and some elements within the Defense Department do not seem to grasp the irony that, in their efforts to create, impose or inspire democratic society in Iraq, they are subverting the very core of what democracy means and are instead, by example, undercutting the very thing they are attempting to install in Iraq," said Schulz.