Two Iraqi channels ordered closed in aftermath of Saddam verdict

New York, November 6, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned by the Iraq Interior Ministry’s decision on Sunday to close two Sunni-owned satellite channels indefinitely. Security forces raided Al-Zawraa TV in Baghdad and Saleheddin TV in Tikrit on grounds they were inciting violence in the hours after former leader Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death, according to news reports and CPJ sources.

The privately-owned Saleheddin TV aired live broadcasts of pro-Saddam demonstrations and then opened its phone lines for callers to express their opinions, according to CPJ sources. Police were seeking the station’s owners, Sunni businessmen Hassan Khatab and Abdelrahman Dahash for questioning, a CPJ source said.

Al-Zawraa, which is owned by Mishaan al-Jubouri, a Sunni legislator from the Liberation and Reconciliation Party, had received several warnings from the government to change its political coverage or face closure, according CPJ sources. Those sources said the channel had sought to avoid a confrontation on Sunday by ignoring demonstrations that erupted after Saddam’s sentence.

Many broadcasters in Iraq have ties to political parties or organizations. Iraqi officials told The Associated Press that security forces closed the stations on broad grounds of undermining national stability and violating a government curfew by interviewing people on the street after the sentence. Al-Jubouri told the AP that Iraqi police raided his station in retaliation for its criticism of the verdict against Hussein.

The U.S.-backed government in Iraq has a record of banning news outlets. In July, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki threatened to shut down any television station deemed to incite sectarianism. On September 7, the government closed the Baghdad bureau of the Dubai-based satellite channel Al-Arabiya for one month. Al-Arabiya Executive Editor Nabil Khatib said the government accused the station of fomenting “sectarian violence and war in Iraq” but did not provide evidence.

Al-Arabiya was targeted before. In November 2003, the Iraqi Governing Council, the provisional government appointed by the United States, banned the station from broadcasting in Iraq. Authorities accused the station of incitement after it aired an audiotape in which Saddam purportedly urged Iraqis to resist the U.S.-led occupation. The station was allowed to resume broadcasting in late January 2004.

The government continues to enforce the closure of the Baghdad bureau of Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera. It was closed in July 2004 after former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi accused the station of incitement to violence and hatred. Iraqi officials alleged that Al-Jazeera’s reporting on kidnappings had encouraged Iraqi militants; a government statement also accused the station of being a mouthpiece for terrorist groups. Al-Jazeera now operates in the Kurdish-ruled area in northern Iraq.

In an unrelated development, Ahmad al-Rashid, a 28-year-old correspondent for the privately-owned Al-Sharqiya TV, was shot and killed Friday in north Baghdad’s Al-Aathamiya neighborhood, according to CPJ sources. Al-Rashid, who began working for Al-Sharqiya three months ago, was visiting family when he was stopped by gunmen, asked to exit his car, and shot in front of witnesses, CPJ sources said. CPJ is investigating the circumstances behind his murder.