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Book ban raises fears of clampdown

by Khalil Jalil

Moves by Iraq's government to control the flow of information both in print and online have raised fears of a crackdown on free speech reminiscent of the regime of ex-dictator Saddam Hussein.
A decision to screen imported books and plans for Internet filters are being seen by intellectuals as a sign that the years of freer expression ushered in by the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam could be coming to an end.
In its first move, the government last month introduced rules requiring that all imported printed works be vetted to weed out those that promote "sectarianism".
The government in its defence says the regulations will help to prevent a return of the sectarian fighting between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that devastated the country in 2006 and 2007, killing thousands of people.
But many in what is left of Iraq's cultural elite see a deeper threat lurking behind the move.
"It's a return to an atmosphere of intellectual oppression, no matter what the excuses or justifications are," Baghdad-based literary critic Mohammed Ismail told AFP.
Like many other writers in Iraq, Ismail was unable to speak out during the rule of the now-executed dictator.
Saddam's Baath Party kept a tight lid on all forms of cultural expression, with artists and writers routinely press-ganged into producing works that glorified the tyrant and fed his massive personality cult.
"If there are any publications aimed at destroying Iraqi society using notions of sectarianism or other destructive ideas, the government's cultural agencies should address them by releasing their own publications and books calling for co-existence and citizenship," Ismail said.
But culture ministry spokesman Hakem al-Shemmari said there was no intention to return to the bad old days.
"We need culture to have a role that is aligned with the country's interests, and strengthens Iraqis' sense of unity, rather than publications that help destroy society through the language of sectarianism," Shemmari said.
"I am surprised by the attitudes of some others who consider this step a kind of censorship and a return to a period of intellectual repression," he said.
On one level, the new rules are more of the same. Works produced and published within Iraq have long needed ministry approval before going on sale.
But in a country with a publishing industry crippled by more than a decade of UN-backed sanctions aimed at bottling up Saddam, intellectuals fear the tightening of rules on imports will have a much stronger dampening effect.
The ministry has not banned any titles so far, but booksellers in the capital have already complained of delays as books are held up at the country's borders for inspection.
"Regardless of the pretexts or justifications put forth by the ministry about banning publications it believes provoke sectarianism, I'm against the idea," said Jamal Karim, a writer in Baghdad.
 "We want freedom of thought, not the return of censorship and repression."
The culture ministry has also raised concerns among intellectuals with a draft law to ban Internet websites that promote "sectarianism, terrorism and immorality".
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is reportedly against the plan, but the communications ministry has said it has prepared the necessary technology to curb "unwanted" web content.
For writer Samer al-Meshal, it is all a dangerously slippery slope.
"The banning of some books makes us fear that there might be another step coming later that limits freedom of thought, and we go back, step-by-step, to the days of intellectual repression," Meshal said.
"I do not want to return to the days when we were subject to Saddam's temperament – we want intellectual open-mindedness."
While some intellectuals shudder at the memory of Saddam-era repression, there are reminders too on the streets of Iraq of the sectarian bloodshed that the authorities are so keen to avoid.
Though violence has dropped markedly since the ebbing of the sectarian war, recent months have seen a string of insurgent attacks apparently aimed at reigniting conflict between Sunnis and Shiites.
Bombings aimed at Shiites in Baghdad and in northern Iraq since the start of the month have claimed scores of lives.