On Sunday 28th April, the Iraqi Communications and Media Commission announced the suspension of the operating licenses of nine Iraqi Satellite TV Stations and the closure of the Baghdad Offices of Al Jazeera Arabic. The justification given was that the mainly Sunni stations were inciting hatred and divisions in Iraq. It sounds familiar doesn't it? The media commission said the networks had broadcast "misinformation, hype and exaggeration" that had deepened sectarian divisions in Iraq". The other nine channels whose licenses were suspended by Iraq's Communications and Media Commission are al-Sharqiya and al-Sharqiya News, which frequently criticize the government, and seven smaller local channels - Salahuddin, Fallujah, Taghyeer, Baghdad, Babiliya, Anwar 2 and al-Gharbiya. All are Sunni backed bar one; Anwar 2 a Shia channel based in Kuwait.
The New York Times reported April 28th that "the edict issued by Iraq's CMC (Communication and Media Commission), which has wide authority to regulate who is allowed to practice journalism and what information is reported, covered a range of channels, many of which have aggressively covered the Sunni protest movement in Iraq. Among the channels are Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab network based in Qatar, and Sharqiya, which has a wide viewership among Iraq's Sunnis."
In effect this means that the ten channels would not be able to report directly from Iraq. Most of them are based outside Iraq mainly in Dubai.
Aljazeera expressed astonishment at the arbitrary decision. The London Guardian reported on April 29th that Al-Jazeera, based in Qatar, said "It was astonished by the move. We cover all sides of the stories in Iraq, and have done for many years. The fact that so many channels have been hit all at once though suggests this is an indiscriminate decision," it also said "We urge the authorities to uphold freedom for the media to report the important stories taking place in Iraq".
The background to this decision is the way the TV Channels covered the violence which erupted at Al Hawaija village near Kirkuk in the north of Iraq when Iraqi security forces broke up a Sunni protest, stormed a camp and killed over 50 protesters and wounded many others. Many Middle East Observers, me included, believe that this hasty and draconian action against the media by the Iraqi government is a blow to freedom of expression and a blow to democracy. This drastic measure is also seen as a crackdown against Sunnis who defied Nouri al-Maliki the embattled Shia Iraqi Prime Minister. It was not a Sunni against Shiite confrontation, but a strong protest against the oppressive policies of the regime. Many journalists believe that the CMC is a tool in the hand of the Iraqi government to control and muzzle the media.
It is true that the Iraqi media is divided along sectarian lines. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein some ten years ago, dozens of TV channels sprang up to represent their own sectarian side, to advance their own agenda and to attack the other side. On the Sunni side Asharqiya, Baghdad and Altaghyeer are the most prominent and on the Shiite side we have al-Iraqiya, al Furat and many others. To complicate the Iraqi media landscape further, there are Kurdish channels, Islamic extremist channels and Christian channels. This chaotic murky media scene is not helped by the presence of the Iranian sponsored Al-Alalam and Almanar Satellite TV Channels, not forgetting the US funded Al Hurra and Radio Sawa.
If we include the Pan Arabian channels like Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya which reach Iraq and offer extensive coverage of Iraqi affairs, we are bound to have a great deal of critical media coverage from Iraq. It is patently obvious the new dictatorial regime is not happy with the broadcasters for carrying the bad news emanating from Iraq.
The Iraqi government's dislike of al Jazeera is evident. They hate Al Jazeera for doing its job. They criticize Aljazeera and attack al Jazeera, but the ironic thing when all is said and done, and when the Iraqi politicians want the truth they turn to Al Jazeera for the latest news. The more they attack Al Jazeera the more credibility it gains. By expressing their dislike of Al Jazeera, they are unwittingly enhancing its reputation as a reliable source of news.
Nouri Al-Maliki's latest attempt to muzzle the media was the main item of Al-Jazeera English flagship program The Listening Post last week. The program highlighted the heavy handed treatment of the media by the Iraqi government against its critics and assessed Iraq's factionalised media. Here is the link for the Listening Post relevant episode:
To change the chaotic Iraqi media state of affairs, there is an urgent need to change the political landscape.