New York, April 29, 2013--The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the Iraqi government's decision on Sunday to suspend the licenses of 10 mostly pro-Sunni satellite channels accused of sectarian incitement.
The Iraqi Commission of Media and Communications (CMC) in a statement accused the broadcasters of using a "sectarian tone" to incite against security forces and to promote "banned terrorist organizations."
The stations are Baghdad, Al-Sharqiyah, Al-Sharqiyah News, Al-Babiliya, Salah Al-Din, Anwar 2, Al-Taghir, Al-Fallujah, Al-Gharbiya, and international broadcaster Al-Jazeera. The local stations, with the exception of the Shia-affiliated Anwar 2, are pro-Sunni and criticize Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for disenfranchising the Sunni community.
In recent months, Iraq has witnessed significant Sunni-led demonstrations against the Shia-dominated federal government. Amid the instability, secular and Islamist Sunni militant groups have launched attacks against government forces. Last week, more than 20 people died after government forces attacked Sunni protesters in Hawija outside of Kirkuk in a purported attempt to pursue Sunni militants, according to news reports.
The statement released by the CMC cites coverage of the Hawija raid as an example of the banned stations' "unprofessional coverage." Order 65 of 2004, a regulation issued under the U.S. occupation before the passage of the Iraqi constitution, empowers the CMC to shut outlets that violate the terms of their license.
"The Iraqi government is conflating dissent with incitement," said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Coordinator Sherif Mansour. "Authorities should immediately reverse this decision, which is clearly designed to stifle reporting on the ongoing violence, and allow these news outlets to operate freely."
In a statement on its website, Al-Jazeera said it was "astonished" by the decision because the broadcaster "cover[s] all sides of the stories in Iraq." Anwar 2 posted on its Facebook page that it would pursue all legal means to overturn the decision, while condemning some of the other banned stations as "sectarian."
A CMC official told the Los Angeles Times that the commission's decision was not political and did not involve al-Maliki, despite a 2011 court ruling that granted the prime minister nominal supervision over the commission.
This is not the first time satellite channels have been banned in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. In 2004, the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council banned Al-Jazeera. In 2010, Cairo-based Al-Baghdadia was closed after it broadcast the demands of gunmen who attacked a Baghdad church, killing 58 people. Al-Baghdadia was again shuttered in December 2012 for alleged administrative violations, but the station claimed the move was intended to silence its exposure of government corruption.
In June 2012, the CMC said it would close 44 unlicensed media outlets, but the order was never carried out. It is not clear how this most recent order will be implemented, with some of the stations broadcasting from abroad. The Associated Press reported that all of the channels remained available Sunday. The CMC statement implies that employees of the stations will face prosecution if they continue their work.
- For more data and analysis on Iraq, visit CPJ's Iraq page here.