Journalist Payouts — in Iraq
As if the Armstrong Williams fiasco weren’t enough, today’s Financial Times features the following disturbing news:
The electoral group headed by Iyad Allawi, the interim Iraqi prime minister, on Monday handed out cash to journalists to ensure coverage of its press conferences in a throwback to Ba’athist-era patronage ahead of parliamentary elections on January 30.
After a meeting held by Mr Allawi’s campaign alliance in west Baghdad, reporters, most of whom were from the Arabic-language press, were invited upstairs where each was offered a “gift” of a $100 bill contained in an envelope.
Many of the journalists accepted the cash – about equivalent to half the starting monthly salary for a reporter at an Iraqi newspaper – and one jokingly recalled how Saddam Hussein’s regime had also lavished perks on favoured reporters.
Giving gifts to journalists is common in many of the Middle East’s authoritarian regimes, although reporters at the conference said the practice was not yet widespread in postwar Iraq.
The press conference came as Mr Allawi and his allies kicked the electoral campaign of their Iraqi List into high gear.
Mr Allawi was not at the conference, but Hussein al-Sadr, a Shia cleric running on the prime minister’s list, used it to challenge Islamist opponents in the United Iraqi Alliance, saying they were falsely claiming the backing of the country’s Shia clerical establishment.
The story offers little detail about the extent of these payouts or the involvement of Allawi, so we should be somewhat cautious about drawing conclusions. But it isn’t negligible. When defending the war, hawks often point to the revival of Iraqi institutions. Indeed, in his latest column, David Brooks notes:
Eighty-three slates of candidates have been formed, despite the terrorists’ threats. More than 7,000 people are running for office. At least 100 newspapers stir a lively cauldron of democratic ideas and debate.
The newspaper Sabah recently published a poll of 4,974 Iraqis living in and around Baghdad. Nearly 88 percent support military action against the terrorists. A survey by the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies suggests that the insurgents’ archfoe, the prime minister Ayad Allawi, is the most popular prospective leader in the land.
Payouts undermine these fledgling institutions, which means they undermine Iraq’s fledgling democracy. If such problems become persistent, it may not matter how successful the upcoming election turns out, because the fairness of future contests will be harder to ensure.