Iraq's 'PBS' accused of sectarian slant

Shiite control of state-funded TV has critics worried about the independence of Iraq's fledgling free press.

In the press office of Iraq's Kurdish President Jalal Talibani, a half-dozen staffers monitor CNN, Saudi-financed Al Arabiya, and the local news channel Al Iraqiya, which is state funded, but independent - in theory.

Nearly 50 percent of Iraqis tune into Al Iraqiya, so Mr. Talibani's media adviser, Hiwa Osman, sees to it that his staff does, too.

Mr. Osman, however, has few kind words for the country's leading network, founded in 2003 by the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). "It's supposed to be a public service broadcaster ... they should be providing a service for all the people, but they are providing a service only for certain people in government," he says.

Like much of the government in the new Iraq, Al Iraqiya is dominated by Shiites, and critics like Osman say that Iraq's version of America's Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) has simply become a propaganda tool for the country's leading Shiite politicians. Al Iraqiya was meant to stand as a model for a burgeoning independent press, but seems to have instead become one more political spoil for its competing factions.

It's not the only sign that Iraq's independent media is in jeopardy. Last week a journalist in the Kurdish city of Arbil was sentenced to 30 years in prison for articles he wrote critical of Kurdish regional president Masoud Barzani.

In the southern city of Kut, two other journalists have been charged with defaming police and the judiciary after criticizing provincial officials in a local paper. If convicted, they face 10 years in prison and heavy fines. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has denounced their prosecution, calling it "part of a larger pattern of judicial harassment" in Iraq.

"Iraqi independent media is under attack, and this casts doubt on Iraq's democratic project," says Ibrahim al-Sragey, director of the Iraqi Organization to Protect Journalists' Rights.

Since the Dec. 15 parliamentary election, Iraq's political factions have been embroiled in negotiations to form a government that includes the country's Sunni Arabs, Shiites, and Kurds. In the coming weeks, these factions will battle over key issues, such as control of government ministries and equitable distribution of the country's resources.

But another important battle has been brewing for much of the past year: the fight for control of Al Iraqiya - which according to a recent Ipsos Stat poll is Iraq's most watched network - and its umbrella company, the Iraqi Media Network (IMN).

In addition to controlling Iraq's most-watched television station, IMN owns the country's leading daily newspaper, Al Sabbah, and a popular radio station. It was meant to be an independent media company protected from the country's political wrangling by a nine person board of governors.

But many Iraqis say that hasn't happened. They view the IMN instead as one more sectarian battlefield in an increasingly divided country.

"The Iraqi Media Network is another factor that is helping to turn Iraqi society into a sectarian society," says Salah Mulek, a secular Sunni politician whose electoral list is likely to win 10 seats in the coming parliament. "This had a big impact on the elections because it was putting out propaganda for the government parties."

Many, including the IMN's own board of governors, say top government officials have repeatedly interfered with its editorial decisions. Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, they say, effectively took control of the company after taking power last year. His office, they allege, worked to turn the IMN's various media outlets into mouthpieces for his policies and Dawa Party allies, hiring and firing editors, and directing editorial policy.

"They pressured us to show certain interviews and to rerun programs that served Jaafari's interests," says IMN governor Sawsan al-Jazrawi, a journalist in Iraq for 17 years.

"Jaafari's media adviser sent me instructions on how to run the paper, including an order to stop my daily column," says Mohammed Abdul Jabbar, the editor in chief of Al Sabbah, who was temporarily fired two months into Mr. Jaafari's term as prime minister. "They wanted me to pay special attention to the news of the prime minister and got angry when we published something about him on the inside pages.

Jaafari spokesman Laith Kubba called such accusations baseless and politically motivated.

Jaafari's control of the IMN lasted through September, when Abdel Aziz Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), publicly denounced Jaafari's meddling. That political cover encouraged the IMN's board of governors to take a stand and reassert their independence.

But it gave others the impression that the IMN exchanged one political patron for another - that instead of Jaafari, the IMN's politically savvy director had instead turned to SCIRI's Mr. Hakim, who competes with Jaafari for influence within the Shiite alliance.

"[IMN Director Habib al Sadr] is always looking for a political backer, rather than relying on professional standards of work," Osman, the media adviser to President Talibani, says. "And the IMN gives their political backers more coverage in exchange."

Mr. Sadr is currently on pilgrimage to Mecca and was not available for comment. Ms. Jazrawi, the IMN governor, said she hadn't noticed any direct interference from Hakim.

But the controversy has added to the perception that what was intended to be an independent media organization is instead a political tool to be exploited.

Mutlek, the Sunni politician, said that control of the IMN is sure to be a contentious issue in the coming negotiations to form a national unity government. "The IMN has been serving the [Shiite] alliance's political interests, so we are going to fight for this body and make it serve our interests."

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