New York, August 14, 2017–Iraqi authorities should stop threatening the pro-Kurdish broadcaster NRT and political satirist Ahmed al-Basheer, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. In a letter NRT received August 10, the Iraqi Communications and Media Commission inquired whether the broadcaster’s Arabic-language channel would continue airing al-Basheer’s program and threatened to pursue “legal action” if the show’s “violations” continue, according to news reports.
The letter, dated July 30, did not specify what “violations” prompted the threat, according to the reports. The program lampoons politicians and armed groups. In a July 28 episode, al-Basheer mocked the former head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Ammar al-Hakim, who a few days prior had announced his departure from the council to launch a new political movement, Tayyar al-Hikma. The newly formed movement announced possible plans to form an alliance with the Sadrist Movement and the ruling National Coalition ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for 2018, according to news reports.
The Iraqi Communications and Media Commission and NRT General Manager Mushrik Abbas did not immediately respond to CPJ’s emails requesting comment.
“Iraqi regulators should not allow themselves to become political enforcers, threatening satirists with legal action for cracking jokes,” CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour said from Washington D.C. “We call on the Iraqi government to cease threatening NRT and political satirist Ahmed al-Basheer and to allow all news media to operate freely.”
In a video statement published on August 11, al-Basheer said that the team behind the show was waiting to receive more information.
“[Politicians] tell you that you have the right to criticize, that it’s a democracy,” he said in the statement. “But when criticism reaches them, they show their real faces.”
In a video released yesterday in response to the regulator’s threats, al-Basheer imagines himself imprisoned for his work. “You will find all fellow journalists here,” an actor playing another prisoner says in the video as al-Basheer joins him in a cell.
According to news reports, Al-Basheer’s program first aired in 2014 on the Iraqi broadcaster Al-Shahid al-Mostaqil, where it developed its style of lampooning politicians and armed groups, but moved to the Iraqi TV channel Al-Sumaria in 2016. In May 2016, after Al-Sumaria broadcasted only a few episodes of the program, the Iraqi Communications and Media Commission ordered the channel to stop carrying it, saying the show’s content was defamatory, according to news reports. Since 2016, the show has aired on the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle’s Arabic-language channel and on NRT, according to news reports.
Each episode begins with a reminder that the Iraqi constitution guarantees freedom of speech.