Was suspension of Alhurra Iraq TV connected to US-Iran tensions?

Iran-backed Iraqi militias accused the US government of being behind the editorial content of Alhurra programmes, a charge denied by the American Embassy in Baghdad.
Saturday 07/09/2019
Easily offended. Members of Iran-backed Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces at a training centre in Karbala carry a placard with an image of Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, August 30. (AFP)
Easily offended. Members of Iran-backed Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces at a training centre in Karbala carry a placard with an image of Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, August 30. (AFP)

LONDON - The suspension of the Alhurra television in Iraq after it aired a programme about corruption inside Iraqi religious institutions renewed criticism of the country’s record on media freedom and raised questions on whether the measure was linked to tensions between Iran and the United States.

Iraq’s Communications and Media Commission hit the channel with a 3-month suspension on September 2 after the broadcaster, which is funded by the United States, ran a documentary criticising the country’s Shia and Sunni religious bodies.

“The Communications and Media Commission ordered a suspension of Alhurra Iraq’s licence for three months and a halt to its activities until it corrects its position,” read a statement by the commission, which demanded a formal apology from the channel and a promise to abide by Iraqi media regulations.

“These steps are tantamount to a final warning to the station and a tougher punishment will be taken in case this offence is repeated,” the statement added.

The commission said the programme “failed to uphold the principles of media professionalism” and “imposed on the audience a fabricated, one-sided narrative that was not supported by credible evidence.”

Alhurra issued a statement saying its “investigative report was fair, precise and professional… Throughout the preparation of the investigation, the team provided the relevant people and institutions with enough opportunities and time to respond but they refused to do so.”

In its media freedom index, Reporters Without Borders’ ranks Iraq 156th on its list of 180 countries. Press freedom advocates, inside and outside Iraq, criticised the decision by Iraq’s media commission.

“This is the first time in five years such a quick step has been taken against a media organisation,” Journalistic Freedoms Observatory Director Ziad al-Ajili told Agence France-Presse. “The commission can give its opinion on the journalistic quality of a documentary but it should have referred the case to the Iraqi judiciary.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called on the Iraqi commission to reverse its suspension of Alhurra.

“We call on Iraq’s media regulator to revoke the suspension of Alhurra’s licence and allow its staff to do their jobs freely and without fear of reprisal,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Representative Ignacio Miguel Delgado. “Reporting on corruption should lead Iraqi authorities to bring those responsible to account rather than to suspend a broadcaster’s licence.”

Iran-backed Iraqi militias accused the US government of being behind the editorial content of Alhurra programmes, a charge denied by Pedro Martin, spokesman for the US Embassy in Baghdad.

“Alhurra’s mission is to deliver accurate and objective information on the region, American policies and Americana,” Martin was quoted by Reuters as saying. “The government of Iraq has the right to question Alhurra on any reporting that is perceived to be false or unprofessional and has the right to respond with their position.”

The attacks on the programme could be motivated by animosity towards the United States in Iraq by pro-Iranian politicians.

“The campaign against Alhurra could be part of Iran’s efforts to curb America’s influence out of the country,” an unidentified Iraqi official told the National, a UAE-based newspaper.

“In general, the media space in Iraq is so broad and diverse that it is surprising to see that Alhurra is suddenly being made an example of over allegations its reports were inaccurate or against religious institutions. It could be more likely that the report was used as an excuse to go after a channel perceived as being linked to the US,” reported the Jerusalem Post.

Transparency International ranks Iraq 168th out of 180 countries on its “Corruption Perception Index.” The topic of corruption in government institutions features regularly on Iraqi television channels but Alhurra programme highlighting the role of Iran in Iraqi politics may have angered Tehran’s supporters in Iraq.

Alhurra’s documentary cited Iraqi activists saying that Shia and Sunni religious figures who are backed by Iran have not been pursued by the authorities regarding corruption allegations because of their links to Tehran.

The programme also targeted religious figures linked to Iraq’s top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is revered by many Iraqis and who is not perceived as being influenced by Iran.

US officials appear to be aware of the offence that the programme may have caused to Sistani’s supporters.

During a visit to Baghdad, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker “reaffirmed the United States’ respect for the significant and enduring role that the Marjaiya (Sistani) plays in Iraq,” read a statement posted by the US Embassy in Baghdad on Twitter.

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