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Iraq Shuts Down Aljazeera and 9 Other TV News Channels

BY Paul Mutter | Wednesday, May 1 2013

The BBC's correspondent in Iraq reporting on the suspension of 10 TV stations (image: screengrab)

The Iraqi government has banned 10 major television news stations — two foreign, eight domestic — from broadcasting, claiming they are guilty of inciting sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims. Amongst the banned stations is Aljazeera Arabic, perhaps the most widely watched satellite news broadcaster in the region.

The government revoked the media outlets' broadcasting licenses after two weeks of violent clashes between security forces, demonstrators and militias. The networks’ offices have not been closed down, but they are no longer permitted to broadcast in the country. Wamith Al-Kassab, an Iraqi journalist, explained that the feeling among most Iraqis is that “people want peace, and if shutting a few channels will make this so, then why not?”

Promoting narratives

"It was no surprise that this crackdown happened the way it has because a few weeks ago, four newspaper offices were attacked by Shia militiamen in Baghdad.” This event, he said, "did not have the same effect as it used to have [on public opinion],” a sign of the exhaustion and mistrust Iraqi audiences feel towards media outlets in their country.

In Iraq today, he continued, the news media “is controlled by either pro-government forces, or by people that see in the Sunni demonstrations a chance for the past to return or a way for Iraq to became like Syria," alluding to the defunct Baathist Party of Iraq and the Islamic Army of Iraq (IAI) formed by Sunni Arabs who seek to topple the Shia-dominated government of Nour al-Maliki. With Maliki's Shia coalition government in power, Sunni Arab media has the most to gain in criticizing the government — and also the most to lose in this tense moment if brought up on charges as accessories to the Sunni militiamen blamed for the spate of shootings and bombings in the past two weeks that have left hundreds killed and wounded.

Of the banned channels, Al Jazeera Arabic (AJA) is the one most clearly associated with an internationalist Sunni Islamism that Shia Arab leaders across the Middle East fear will result in their removal from power, or worse. AJA’s coverage of Iraq since 2003, Wamith says, has been popularly regarded in country as "anti-US, pro-insurgents" and after the 2005 elections, "anti-government and to some degree anti-Shia, which make it unpopular" among the majority Shia Arab population.

"Since the clashes started [in and around Baghdad last Tuesday and Friday] with the Iraqi Army, you can feel they [anti-government militias] are hoping things will get worse in Iraq and that as Sunnis they can organize an Islamist ‘free army,’ Wamith says, “so it came as no surprise that the government” enacted a ban because the Maliki government sees AJA as providing a platform for the (Sunni) Islamist opposition, whether that is defined as the insurgent Islamic Army of Iraq (IAI), or as nonviolent Sunni politicians and activists.

Following a precedent

The Iraqi government has tried to shut down other foreign broadcasters before, such as Voice of America and BBC International, on charges of "incitement," but has backed down due to international pressure. This is unlikely to be the case here with AJA, despite the political clout of Qatar in the region. The criticism the network has earned in Syria and Egypt of providing unsubtle "pro-Brotherhood" editorializing has not fallen on deaf ears among Iraqi leaders. Within the halls of government in Baghdad, there is a real sense of concern that the nine banned Sunni-affiliated channels were enabling a drive by Sunni militias and politicians to build up a new, anti-Shia insurgency.

Only one other foreign-owned channel was banned: the Kuwaiti Anwar 2 network, which unlike AJA and the other channels, is perceived as pro-Iran — perhaps too much so from the perspective of Baghdad. But the government’s primary focus has been on networks owned by, or seen as being close, to Sunni Arab political centers.

Of the domestic media outlets now banned, the Dubai-based Sharqiya and Sharqiya News channels are among the top TV networks broadcasting Iraq, after privately owned Baghdad TV and state-owned Al Iraqiya. Saad Al Bazzaz, the owner of the Al Sharqiya, is a Baathist propaganda director turned UK media mogul, widely despised by the ruling coalition. This is in part because of his former association with the Baathist Party, but also because his network has a reputation for irreverently highlighting corruption in Iraq. According to Wamith, the government is also suspicious of Bazzaz’s ties with Ayad Allawi, leader of the Iraqiya opposition bloc in parliament, and his level of support for the Syrian rebels.

Al Sharqiya has been sued and censored by the government before over its news coverage. It became embroiled in a 2008 controversy when it accused Al Iraqiya of inciting against its staff during a particularly violent period — hence its HQ being located in Dubai these days. Its coverage of the recent violence is, like AJA’s, regarded by the state as incitement because its programs have aired footage purportedly showing extrajudicial killings of Sunni demonstrators and captured Sunni militiamen by security forces.

All of the domestic channels now banned are associated with Sunni figures in Iraq, most notably Baghdad TV, which is owned by the opposition Iraqi Islamic Party, and Babiliya, which is also owned by a Sunni politician in opposition. Though small domestic networks air local news and have a limited reach, they are seen as a danger to state security “because most of them run clips of the insurgents’ clashes with the government’s forces."

The BBC's report on the Iraqi government's suspension of broadcasting rights for 10 TV news stations

Vulnerable to the anti-terrorism law

By covering these clashes the way they do, the networks open themselves up to censorship and legal action under Iraq’s draconian anti-terrorism laws: "this is a very common mistake that Sunni-oriented media in Iraq have made since 2003, they try to represent the insurgents and this gives the government the chance to invoke the infamous Article 4” of the anti-2005 terrorism law, Wamith notes. Indeed, the networks seemed to have greatly underestimated the how serious the government is in applying Article 4: specifically cited in the government’s decision was, reports Iraq Business News, that several of the banned stations “carried speeches by Sunni leaders on 26 April urging young men to take up arms against the government.”

The aforementioned Article 4 broadly defines "terrorists" as "those who provoke, plan, finance and all those who enable terrorists to commit these crimes." "Provoke" offers a particularly broad definition of material support for terrorism; human rights organizations and Sunni Iraqis warn that this leaves political activists and media outlets sympathetic to Sunni disenfranchisement and discrimination under the Shia-dominated government vulnerable to trumped-up charges and, if convicted, the death penalty. As one local NGO, the Journalism Freedoms Observatory, told AFP last spring, “the state deals 'with a journalist holding a camera in the same way it deals with those they find possessing car bombs or unlicensed weapons.'" Laws enacted to protect the rights of journalists are similarly vague worries the Iraqi journalists Hazim al-Sharaa and Hayder Hamzoz.

"Unfortunately,” Wamith noted, “now if you are a Sunni Arab and work in media or human rights, then most non-Sunni people will distrust you; if you are also anti-government, then you are a terrorist to them. Socialists, leftists, humanitarians, Christians, or anyone else who criticizes the government these days will be consider pro-Baathist," which has been the case in the Iraqi blogosphere since 2003 when it first emerged in the course of the US occupation. Due to violence against journalists and heavy pressure from officials and coworkers, reporters and bloggers are becoming more and more polarized in their commentaries.

Though Iraqi blogs have been targeted in media crackdowns before, this time, "no web sites were shut down. There was, however, a big clash on social media venues between pro- and anti-government activists, and unfortunately these clashes have lead to increased sectarian activism that silences moderate voices." As people doubt the independence of the media because outlets take up increasingly partisan stances for or against the Maliki government's policies, outlets risk becoming more polarized towards a pro-government line or towards positions espoused by the Islamist parties.

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at New York University. He is a regular contributor to the Arabist and Souciant blogs.

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