Posted: January 12, 2007
On January 1, the Iraqi Ministry of Interior ordered the closure of the privately owned Al-Sharqiya TV’s Baghdad office for fomenting sectarian violence and reporting false news. The immediate practical effect appeared nominal because Al-Sharqiya had previously closed the Baghdad office due to security concerns.
The ban followed Al-Sharqiya’s coverage of Saddam Hussein’s execution on December 30, during which the presenter wore black clothing in mourning for the former Iraqi president’s death, The Associated Press reported. The channel referred to Saddam as “president,” while state-owned television broadcasts called him a “tyrant” and a “criminal,” the news agency said. The ban appeared to be indefinite; the government set no timeframe in which the station could reopen the office.
A source at Al-Sharqiya told CPJ that the station aired secretly filmed footage of Saddam’s execution showing Iraqi guards jeering the former leader. The two-and-a-half-minute video was shot by Iraqi guards on a cell phone camera and leaked to the Internet, where it spread rapidly. It was frequently played by pan-Arab satellite channels Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya. The footage led to protests by Iraq’s Sunni minority and received worldwide condemnation.
The order to shut Al-Sharqiya’s Baghdad office did not specify the channel’s coverage of the Saddam execution. “We had sent many warnings to the channel previously, but it insisted on circulating false news that provoked violence and hatred,” AP quoted Brig. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, as saying.
The satellite channel continued broadcasting, uninterrupted, from its Dubai headquarters.
A source at Al-Sharqiya told CPJ that the channel had closed its Baghdad office two months before the order, citing the security concerns of maintaining an active operation in Baghdad. At least three Al-Sharqiya staff members were killed in November 2006.
Al-Sharqiya is owned by the London-based Azzaman Group, which also publishes the Iraqi daily Azzaman. The Azzaman Group is owned by Iraqi media tycoon Saad al-Bazzaz, who was the former head of radio and television under Saddam until 1992. The channel is perceived to have a Sunni slant.
“Al-Sharqiya is still on the air. Nothing has changed,” Bazzaz told the U.S. entertainment magazine Daily Variety. “We do not belong to that group of channels that represent a particular sect or political party. ... In Al-Sharqiya, there are no Shias or Sunnis. There are only Iraqis. We have had employees killed by groups from all sides.”
On November 30, 2006, a special unit charged with monitoring news coverage in Iraq was established by the Interior Ministry, AP reported. The government threatened legal action against any journalist who does not amend reports the ministry deems inaccurate, the agency said.