The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) strongly protests the Iraqi interim government's closure of the Iraq offices of the Qatar-based satellite news channel Al-Jazeera.
On August 7, the interim government barred Al-Jazeera from working in Iraq for 30 days, accusing the station of incitement to violence and hatred, according to news reports. Your Excellency announced the decision at a press conference, noting that an Iraqi media monitoring body had produced a report "on the issues of incitement and the problems Al-Jazeera has been causing." You also said the ban was implemented to "protect the people of Iraq and the interests of Iraq."
In justifying the government's decision, Your Excellency asserted that Al-Jazeera's reporting on kidnappings in Iraq had encouraged Iraqi militants. Other Iraqi officials accused the station of being a mouthpiece for terrorist groups; depicting criminal activity; creating a negative picture of events in Iraq; and contributing to instability in Iraq.
To CPJ's knowledge, the station was banned without any due process, and the media commission's report has not been made public. Iraqi officials have also failed to provide further details to support their allegations.
The closure of Al-Jazeera is a serious blow to press freedom in Iraq. While we appreciate Iraqi government concerns about the security situation in Iraq, we believe this action is unjustified. The Iraqi government may be unhappy with Al-Jazeera's coverage but has presented no evidence that the channel's reporting constitutes a deliberate attempt to incite violence in Iraq, nor that it is likely to do so. This closure appears to be an attempt to sanction a news organization for negative coverage of events inside Iraq.
Governments should be free to criticize news coverage, and there should be an open debate about professionalism and ethics in media coverage. The Iraqi government should be encouraged to engage with news organizations, such as Al-Jazeera, with which it disagrees. But by adopting crude censorship methods, Iraqi authorities have damaged their credibility as a government that supports the internationally guaranteed right to freedom of the press.
One month ago, following your decision to re-open Al-Hawza newspaper--which was shuttered by the U.S.-backed Coalition Provisional Authority in March--you expressed your "absolute belief in the freedom of the press." As an organization of journalists dedicated to defending our colleagues worldwide, CPJ calls on you to demonstrate this commitment by ensuring that Al-Jazeera is allowed to resume its work in Iraq immediately and without further harassment. We further call on you to ensure that media in Iraq are free to conduct their professional work without further government interference.
Thank you for your attention to this important matter. We look forward to your reply.
Ann K. Cooper