As interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi is supposed to be guiding Iraq toward democratic elections. Yet in his first six weeks he has begun yielding to the same kind of authoritarian mentality that has stifled democracy in too many neighboring states. His latest target is the television channel Al Jazeera, whose sometimes sensational news coverage is the Arab world's principal source of uncensored information. Claiming that Al Jazeera's extensive coverage of terrorist kidnappings and other crimes encourages continuing violence, Allawi's police shut down the station's Baghdad bureau on Saturday for at least 30 days. The office will be allowed to reopen only if Al Jazeera agrees to change its policies.
Thwarting Al Jazeera's news coverage will not halt the violence that has been tearing Iraq apart for the past 16 months. But it may spare Allawi the embarrassment of having that violence so visible to a worldwide audience. It may also give his government a freer hand to abuse human rights and pursue personal political vendettas in the name of restoring law and order.
Al Jazeera's news coverage is professional, provocative and partisan. Before the station began broadcasting in 1996 with financial support from the emir of Qatar, Arab viewers were largely limited to tame, uninformative state broadcasting outlets. Now tens of millions of people in the Arab world see news that their own governments would prefer to keep quiet.
That has repeatedly gotten Al Jazeera into trouble with authoritarian Arab governments - a precedent that Allawi should not be so eager to follow. The station has also drawn sharp criticism from Bush administration officials like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for its stridently Arab nationalist tone and the graphic details of its Iraq war coverage.
More sensitivity and less stridency on Al Jazeera's part would certainly be welcome. But on the whole, it has been a healthy and crucially important force for change. It often stands almost alone in holding the actions of previously unaccountable governments up to public view and encouraging broader public debate. Allawi's government is supposed to be pointing the way toward a more democratic Iraq in a more democratic Middle East. By moving against Al Jazeera, it does just the opposite.