Iraqi government takes 10 TV stations off the air for 'incitement'

Iraqi authorities accused the stations of stoking conflict with their coverage of a violent Army crackdown on an antigovernment sit-in. Some see a worrying crackdown on free speech.

Iraqi authorities have suspended 10 television networks in response to their coverage of the killing of dozens of Sunni demonstrators by the Iraqi Army last week. 

The Communications and Media Commission, responsible for licensing foreign and Iraqi media outlets, said Al Jazeera and nine other networks would be banned from operating until they addressed what the commission called violations of a code of conduct during their coverage of the storming of a sit-in last week.

Coverage by the channels “constitutes an incitement and escalation that is closer to mistruth, intimidation, and exaggeration than it is to objectivity,” the commission said in a statement announcing the suspensions. It said the networks had engaged in “clear calls for disorder and launching retaliatory criminal attacks against security forces and explicit promotion of constitutionally and legally banned terrorist organizations.”

Iraq has been convulsed by antigovernment demonstrations in Sunni areas for almost six months. At least 50 demonstrators were killed when the Iraqi Army and special forces moved in to clear a public square in Huweijah they had surrounded for five days after a soldier was shot near the location during a Friday protest. Security forces had cordoned off the square, preventing protesters from leaving until they gave up the unknown gunman.

Dozens of people, including several police, were killed in attacks in several other cities, fueled by anger over the killings in Huweijah.

The media adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Mr. Maliki had not been aware of the ban by the independent commission until it was announced and was not in favor of sweeping suspensions.

“We still don’t know the criteria or standards that they used to make this decision,” says Ali al-Mussawi. “Frankly I would say the shortcoming of the commission was not in the decision itself but in not making clear the evidence for it.”

But, he said, five of the suspended channels had been operating illegally, without any licenses.

“If a station is violating the law, the commission has to act because there is a violation, but for us, we have to look at whether these suspensions are effective,” he says. “Most of the time they are not, because the media operates across borders.”

Qatar-based Al Jazeera network, the parent of both the Arabic and English channels, said it was “astonished” by the suspension.

“The fact that so many channels have been hit all at once … suggests this is an indiscriminate decision. We urge the authorities to uphold freedom for the media to report the important stories taking place in Iraq.”

Iraq has long accused the wealthy, predominantly Sunni Gulf state of funding unrest and trying to destabilize the Iraqi government.  Qatar denies the charge. 

The suspension has not been imposed on Al Jazeera English, which was allowed to operate in Iraq even when the Arabic network was banned in the country several years ago.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch Middle East director, says the network suspensions constituted a worrying sign of a crackdown on free speech.

“Foreign journalists are talking about how much more difficult it has become for them to come to the country and to get visas to move around the country, so it’s of great concern because the feeling is that the space for free speech and free media is shrinking," she says.

Huweijah, near Kirkuk, was cordoned off by security forces before, during, and after the military operation. Media reporting on the crackdown relied on accounts from witnesses. 

Human Rights Watch condemned the military's actions as “grossly excessive use of force."

“For the government to have made such grandiose claims of murderers having entered the camp with a stash of weapons and yet to have no credible evidence that this was the case, despite the deaths of so many of these protesters, is shocking,” Ms. Whitson says. 

In letters sent to the suspended networks this week, the commission noted that provincial security forces had been advised that journalists would face legal charges if they tried to work.

Iraq’s own state-run broadcaster, Iraqiya, has also been criticized for violations of the commission’s code of conduct, which includes providing respectful coverage in the aftermath of killings.

During coverage of a defense ministry ceremony to bury, with state honors, five off-duty soldiers who were murdered in Anbar this week, Iraqiya broadcast footage not only of Maliki paying his respects, but of the soldiers’ bloodied bodies, with detailed descriptions of their wounds. The commission has not announced any action against the network.

Editor's note: Jane Arraf is also a correspondent for Al Jazeera. 

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