The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply troubled by the Iraqi interim government's formation of a media regulatory commission that reportedly will have the authority to restrict news coverage.
The Financial Times reported on Tuesday, July 27, that Iraqi officials had created a Higher Media Commission charged with regulating print and broadcast media in Iraq and empowered to impose sanctions, including closure, against outlets that cross "red lines" in their coverage.
Ibrahim Janabi, whom Your Excellency appointed as head of the commission, said in an interview with The Financial Times that Iraqi officials were drafting a list of prohibitions on news coverage that would include banning certain criticisms of the prime minister. For example, in the interview, Janabi said broadcasters that air a sermon given last Friday by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who made derogatory comments about Your Excellency during his speech, could be banned.
Janabi also told The Financial Times that if the Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera, which aired part of the sermon, rebroadcasts the speech, "we will give them two weeks to correct the policy, and after that we will tell them sorry we need to close your office."
Today, CPJ interviewed Your Excellency's spokesman George Sada, who, citing your letter authorizing the commission's formation, said the body was created to "organize the work of the media." However, Sada said he was unaware of Janabi's comments or the details of the commission's powers and activities.
Word of the new commission came one day after Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari lashed out at Al-Jazeera and other pan-Arab broadcasters, accusing them of "one-sided and biased coverage of the situation in Iraq." In an interview with Al-Jazeera, he said, "We will not allow some people to hide behind the slogan of freedom of the press and media."
CPJ views these statements and reported regulations as a threat to press freedom in Iraq. The restrictive media regulations and censorship described by Janabi would undermine the very foundation of democratic society by restricting the free flow of information. If Iraqi officials move forward with this reported plan, it would represent a serious setback for press freedom in Iraq and call into question the interim government's commitment to basic standards of free expression.
As an organization of journalists dedicated to defending our colleagues worldwide, CPJ calls on you to publicly clarify the role and function of the Higher Media Commission and to ensure that any official regulation of the media conforms with international standards for a free press. We further call on you to ensure that Iraqi officials cease future threats of censorship and harassment against media.
Thank you for your attention to this important matter. We look forward to your reply.
Ann K. Cooper