(Baghdad) – Iraq’s media commission should immediately reverse the license suspensions for ten satellite television stations and allow them to continue broadcasting. A senior official has admitted the suspension was not according to any law, nor could the commission produce any evidence of direct incitement to violence by any of the stations, leading to the conclusion that the suspension was arbitrary.
The official Communications and Media Commission suspended the licenses on April 28, 2013, amid spiraling violence and anti-government demonstrations in Sunni-majority provinces. The license suspensions targeted exclusively opposition stations while leaving others like state-run al-Iraqiya channel free to continue broadcasting.
“The authorities have admitted that there was no legal basis for their decision, which looks more suspicious given the government's history of cracking down on opposition media, particularly during protests,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If the Iraqi government is truly committed to ending violence and sectarianism, it should reform the criminal justice system, hold the security forces accountable for attacks on protesters, and stop blocking elections in provinces in which it has little support.”
Mujahid Abu al-Hail, who heads the media commission’s Department of Audiovisual Media Regulation, told Human Rights Watch that the commission suspended the licenses after concluding that the ten stations were “promoting violence and sectarianism.” The stations are: Al-Jazeera, Al-Sharqiya, Al-Sharqiya News, Al-Anwar al-Thany, Al-Fallujah, Al-Tagheer, Al-Garbhiya, Salah al-Din, Babeliya, and Baghdad TV.
Al-Hail told Human Rights Watch that he recommended the license suspensions because the commission’s “Monitoring Department” had concluded, after tracking the stations’ output for three months, that their “messages” encouraged violence and sectarianism. He admitted that he did not make the decision “on a legal basis” but said it was on national security grounds because the stations had “broadcast speeches and fatwas from extremist sheikhs that encouraged violence.”
Al-Hail was unable to provide Human Rights Watch with details of any occasions when the suspended stations’ broadcasting output amounted to actual incitement to particular and imminent acts of sectarian or other violence. Both international law and the Iraqi constitution would require similar incitement for the broadcasts to fall within the ambit of permissible content-based restrictions on freedom of expression. He said the commission had documented examples of such incitement in a report that it would make available to Human Rights Watch, although it has not yet done so. It has also not provided this report to the affected channels.
“At a time when the security forces are attacking protesters without punishment, it’s hard to believe the government’s claims that it canceled these channels’ licenses out of its concern to protect citizens from violence,” Whitson said. “The authorities have a responsibility to protect citizens, but also to protect their free speech and access to information. The media commission’s inability to cite any specific examples of incitement to violence by these ten TV stations it has decided to shut down is telling.”
Al-Hail told Human Rights Watch that he had ordered the license suspensions after the commission repeatedly warned the stations that it would suspend their licenses if they did not comply with broadcasting regulations and stop airing offensive material, though the CMC’s website states that the suspensions occurred as a result of the stations’ coverage of a government raid on a protest camp in the city of Haweeja on April 23.
Ziyad al-Ajili, head of the Journalistic Freedom Observatory, which monitors media freedom in Iraq, said that the stations had told him they had received no prior notification. He said they first learned of their license suspensions in a statement on the commission’s website.
A New York Times report said that the letter stated that Iraqi security force commanders had received copies of the letter and had been ordered to “do what’s necessary to stop all journalism operations” of the channels. A representative of one of the channels whose licenses had been suspended “took that as an implicit threat that his reporters would be arrested if they continued to do their jobs,” the report said.
The Iraqi government has repeatedly targeted the news media over what it perceives as unfavorable reporting, and the official media regulator has frequently harassed local and satellite media. But the license suspensions represent a new level of interference and coincide with a steep rise in sectarian fighting and a major political crisis. Iraq’s security forces have blocked journalists from reaching the demonstration sites since December 2012, effectively restricting media coverage of the protests.
A television correspondent who asked that his name be withheld for fear of government reprisal told Human Rights Watch that men in military uniforms and vehicles who refused to identify themselves abducted him on December 28 in Ramadi when he was trying to cover one of the ongoing demonstrations. They blindfolded him and threatened him with death if he continued to cover the protest for his channel, before finally releasing him.
Also in December, staff from three local radio outlets told Human Rights Watch that security forces raided their headquarters and ordered them to shut down, accusing them of not paying their license fees. One showed Human Rights Watch receipts proving they had paid in full, and said an army officer had threatened, “Either you turn off your transmitter or we will use other means.” The officer shut off the transmitter and the radio station was temporarily unable to broadcast. A few days earlier, on December 15 security forces surrounded and closed down Baghdadiya satellite television station and confiscated equipment. The CMC gave conflicting reasons for the temporary closure in announcements and media interviews.
On May 8, 2012, the media commission issued a list of 44 foreign and Iraqi media outlets it said were unregistered and operating illegally, and asked the Interior Ministry to “take the necessary legal measures against them.” The Interior Ministry distributed the letter, a copy of which Human Rights Watch obtained, to police in Baghdad. The media outlets were not officially closed down, but have told Human Rights Watch that they have had to navigate a difficult and unpredictable registration process that has left them with uncertain status and vulnerable to possible legal action or closure.
Iraq's constitution guarantees freedom of speech, and the ICCPR’s article 19 holds that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression ... to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.” International standards only allow official restrictions on the content of what the media can broadcast or print in extremely narrow circumstances. Article 20 (2) of the ICCPR requires states to prohibit advocacy that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. Restrictions must be clearly defined, specific, necessary, and proportionate to the threat to interest protected.
“The Iraqi authorities’ completely arbitrary application of regulations against the media, and its other attempts at media intimidation, aren’t going to make the protests go away,” Whitson said. “Blank screens will be a telling indication of what the Iraqi authorities see as acceptable journalism.”