What if you held a democracy and nobody watched? That’s the question raised by yesterday’s stormy Iraqi assembly session, which turned into a shouting match after faction leaders announced they had yet to take key steps towards forming a government, and rank-and-file members were like, “What gives?”
Messy as it was, it looked like democracy in action until, according to Reuters, “As the meeting grew heated, the interim speaker ordered journalists to leave and Iraqi television abruptly switched to Arab music.”
Whatever the tune, the move strikes a discordant note with the spirit of the White House’s “Iraq Fact of the Day” from March 22, 2004, which was:
Free press is flourishing in Iraq and providing the Iraqi people with access to a variety of news sources… This burgeoning free press is encouraging debate and democracy in Iraq.
In democracies around the world, TV audiences are routinely treated to scenes of their statesmen (and women) being less than statesmanlike (or woman like). For instance, there was the lengthy brawl in the South Korean legislature last March when President Roh was impeached, or the dustup in Taiwan’s assembly last May. Back in the day, even American legislators were not averse to throwing some hands — or, in the case of unlucky Charles Sumner, canes.
Of course, the Sumner caning was in some ways the opening thwack of the Civil War, and Iraq is desperately trying to avoid giving Ken Burns something to compose a 300-hour documentary about. By covering the cameras, perhaps the Iraqi assembly leader, Sheik Dhari Al-Fayadh, was hoping to pacify societal tensions. But most press accounts suggest that the thrust of the argument in the assembly was not so much Sunni versus Shiite, but followers versus leaders. So Fayadh may have been avoiding embarrassment, not insurrection.
Whatever his rationale, bouncing the press from only the second edition of “Representative Democracy: Iraqi Style” doesn’t jive with what Dubya said he was going to tell Vlady Putin last month: that “democracies are based upon rule of law and the respect for human rights and human dignity and a free press.”