Authorities close Al-Baghdadia TV in Iraq, force staff out of channel’s offices

New York, March 18, 2016–The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on Iraqi authorities to restore the broadcasting license of the pro-Sunni satellite channel Al-Baghdadia TV, and to allow the channel to operate freely in Iraq.

On Wednesday, the Ministry of Interior ordered security guards to remove staff from the channel’s offices in 16 Iraqi cities because its license had been revoked by the state media regulator, the Iraqi Commission of Media and Communications, according to the station’s staff, news reports and local press freedom group the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory. The station’s Baghdad director told the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory that guards were stationed outside the channel’s offices to prevent staff from entering.

In a statement published yesterday, the Ministry of Interior said the station was closed on the orders of the Iraqi Commission of Media and Communications, which issues licenses.

Al-Baghdadia TV’s director, Najm al-Rubaie, told the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory that the channel did not receive prior warning or any notices from Commission of Media and Communications before the offices were closed. He said the channel’s license had been revoked in 2014.

Abdel Hamed al-Saeh, director of Al-Baghdadia TV’s London office, told CPJ the government used previous orders by the commission as justification for closing the channel. He denied that the station incites violence, and said he didn’t know what guidelines it has allegedly violated. He told CPJ he believes the station is being targeted because of its show “9 o’clock,” which exposes corruption.

“CPJ calls on Iraqi Commission of Media and Communications to restore Al-Baghdadia TV’s license and to allow staff to return to work,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour. “The Iraqi government cannot muzzle its critics every time there is a political conflict. Authorities should respect citizens’ right to diverse perspectives.”

The license was revoked two days before protests, which are due to take place in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone today. Local news reports quoted an unnamed Al-Baghdadia TV employee saying the action against the channel is part of a government crackdown on media outlets that supported the anti-corruption protests and strikes. The Facebook page for Al-Baghdadia TV includes several videos of its broadcasts calling on Iraqis to join the protests which the channel refers to as “determination Friday.” The government has warned that the rallies are illegal.

The channel’s website was still running at the time of publication, although according to the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, it cannot be accessed inside Iraq. Al-Saeh told CPJ its broadcasts outside Iraq have not been affected. The station opened an office in London to allow it to broadcast on an EU satellite frequency, after the Egyptian broadcasting regulator banned Al-Baghdadia TV and two other Iraqi channels in 2014 from being broadcast on the state-owned Nilesat. The channel successfully appealed the decision and on Monday used its Facebook page to let viewers in Iraq know what frequency on which to find the channel.

Al-Baghdadia, which covers politics, news, and sports, has been temporarily shut down several times. CPJ documented how security guards sealed the channels offices in Basra and Baghdad in 2010 after it broadcast the demands of gunmen who attacked a church in Baghdad, and in 2012 security forces removed staff and forced the channel to stop broadcasting for allegedly violating unspecified broadcast transmission rules, refusing to sign a list of unspecified media regulations, and not paying broadcasting fees owed to the Communications and Media Commission.

Al-Saeh said Al-Baghdadia TV will not be deterred by the latest action against it, but said the move was a bad sign from a government that claims to protect public freedoms.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The third and fourth paragraphs of this alert have been modified to correctly identify the year al-Bahgdadia TV’s license was revoked.