Iraq to bar key Arabic news channels

By P. MITCHELL PROTHERO  |  Sept. 23, 2003 at 11:35 AM
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BAGHDAD, Sept. 23 (UPI) -- The Iraqi Governing Council announced Tuesday it would suspend two prominent Arabic-language satellite news stations for what it said was supporting recent attacks on council members and U.S. occupation forces.

The decision to temporarily suspend al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya came after a week of criticism by Iraqi supporters of the U.S.-appointed council who said the channels incited both anti-occupation violence and ethnic and sectarian tensions.

It is unclear how long the suspensions will last, or even if the council has the authority to bar news organizations from Iraq without permission from the Coalition Provisional Authority. As Iraq has yet to ratify a new constitution, it stands to reason the council would need permission from the CPA to bar any organization from operating in the country. The CPA did not respond to inquires about the announcement, which was made by a spokesman for Ahmed Chalabi, who heads the Iraqi National Congress and currently serves as the council's president.

Al-Jazeera and al-Arabia correspondents in Baghdad refused to comment on the situation other than to say they did not know "exactly what being suspended meant."

"They have not told us anything officially," an al-Jazeera spokesman in Qatar told United Press International.

The INC spokesman said the suspensions were a result of what the two channels broadcast.

"They are being suspended for inciting sectarian violence and attacks on governing council officials," the spokesman said. "They have also shown videos of terrorists promising attacks on coalition forces."

INC officials said the council had voted to suspend the two organizations until it could develop regulations for the conduct of media and sanctions for the organizations that fail to meet them. The INC official indicated the bureaus of the two companies would be closed, their credentials and access to the CPA and coalition forces would be revoked, and that they would be prohibited from broadcasting from the country.

However, the official did not absolutely confirm these sanctions, but rather described them as "possibilities under discussion." Iraq has little, if any, border security, and it seems unlikely the CPA or council would have a definite list of employees from either company to actually remove them from Iraq.

"We hope this step sends a clear message to the media that they need to practice moral journalism and not to send messages condoning or supporting terrorism," the INC official said.

The move follows a week in which Chalabi and other supporters of the U.S. occupation of Iraq criticized the Arabic-language news organizations with the allegations of condoning or inciting violence.

Chalabi virtually blamed the networks for a recent assassination attempt on Akila al-Hashimi, one of three women on the Governing Council. She was shot Saturday near her home by yet unknown gunmen and was critically wounded.

Reporters visiting al-Jazeera's Baghdad bureau Tuesday did not see any indication the company was being forced out in the immediate future.

Subhy Haddad - the former head of the Iraqi News Agency as well as a long time contributor to Reuters and the BBC - said he had mixed feelings about the decision to stifle the two networks.

"I do not like Chalabi or the American occupation," he said. "But on this move they might be right. Al Jazeera has been irresponsible in its coverage. And it is dangerous in a place like Iraq."

But when a reporter mentioned that al-Jazeera, which some say has a pro-Palestinian slant in its coverage, continues to operate bureaus in both the occupied territories and Israel, Haddad reconsidered.

"Chalabi looks worse than (Israeli Prime Minister) Ariel Sharon," he said with a smile. "That is not a good thing to seem."

Many prominent pro-U.S. Iraqi officials - particularly Shiite clerics - have also criticized the media in general for negative coverage of the occupation. Religious leaders in Baghdad -- both Sunni and Shiite -- have condemned the use by some Arab news organizations of the phrase "martyrs" to describe Baathists killed in fights with coalition forces, arguing the secular nature of Saddam's regime, not to mention attacks on non-military targets, put them far outside the definition of someone who dies in pursuit of a religious cause.

The move to essentially censor news organizations for their content typifies allegations by critics of the occupation that the council and the U.S. occupation forces stifle negative coverage including, in limited cases, the arrest of anti-coalition journalists.

Over the first three months of the U.S. occupation, several newspapers - more than 160 have been started since the fall of Saddam - have been closed and their staffs temporarily detained by U.S. troops. At present, American forces have one Iraqi journalist in custody. A photographer for al-Saah, a newspaper published by a prominent Sunni cleric and strong opponent of the U.S. presence in Iraq, was arrested after taking pictures of an American patrol in early August and is being held without charges.

Abdullah Alami, the head of the Iraqi Journalists Union, told UPI in an interview conducted before Tuesday's announcement that about eight Iraqi journalists were detained for anti-coalition writing immediately after the war ended, but that most were released almost immediately.

Alami and about a dozen editors of Baghdad newspaper contacted by UPI, agreed, however, the CPA has been unwilling to shut down critics of the occupation who conducted themselves in a professional manner and did not directly call for violence.

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