(Beirut) – The closure of Al Jazeera’s Baghdad bureau by the Iraqi Communications and Media Commission is nothing but an effort to clamp down on freedom of expression. The commission should promptly reverse its decision and allow the bureau to operate freely in accordance with international standards on freedom of the media and free speech, the organization said.

The logo of Al Jazeera Media Network is seen at the International Television Programs Market event in Cannes on April 2, 2012. 

© 2012 Reuters

The commission, in a letter to the bureau, accused Al Jazeera of “incit[ing] sectarianism and violence.” The station’s Baghdad bureau chief, Waleed Ibrahim, said that commission officials later told him the order stemmed from their displeasure with the editorial policies of Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Qatar.

Iraqi authorities should immediately allow Al Jazeera to resume its work, or spell out exactly how and when the station incited violence, Human Rights Watch said.

“Iraqis have a right to hear a variety of perspectives on current events,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Closing down a prominent international network on the basis of vague and unsubstantiated allegations smacks of political motivation to shut out uncomfortable criticism, and it’s an action that should be immediately reversed.”

Closing down a prominent international network on the basis of vague and unsubstantiated allegations smacks of political motivation to shut out uncomfortable criticism, and it’s an action that should be immediately reversed

Joe Stork

Deputy Middle East Director

Ibrahim told Human Rights Watch that the commission’s executive board called him into a meeting on February 21, 2016. At the meeting, he said, the board members accused Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha of being sectarian and encouraging what they said were “violations” in its Iraq coverage. Ibrahim said he refused to sign a letter that he agreed with the allegations, “but also explained that I do not have any control over the content coming out of Doha, only out of Baghdad.” He said that the commission officials confirmed in that meeting that they had no issue with the Baghdad bureau’s coverage, but threatened that they would shut down the office to send a message to Al Jazeera’s Doha headquarters.

Ziad Ajili, executive director of the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory in Iraq, told Human Rights Watch that he subsequently tried to contact other government officials to urge them, without success, not to go ahead with the closure order.

On April 25, Ibrahim said, his office received a letter from the media commission dated April 14, saying that it had decided to withdraw Al Jazeera’s work permit for 2016, and close the office for one year. The letter, which Human Rights Watch has seen, stated that this decision was based on “…your continuous violations and offenses and going too far with your media rhetoric that incites sectarianism and violence, and after using all legal means to have you redress your status – despite repeated demands to that effect – and giving you the chance to improve your media rhetoric in compliance with professional codes.”

This is not the first time the commission has suspended Al Jazeera’s operating license. In 2013, it suspended the licenses of Al Jazeera and nine other channels, alleging they were reporting with a sectarian tone and promoting unnamed terrorist organizations in their coverage of Sunni demonstrations against the government.

A security guard walks outside the Al Jazeera building in Baghdad April 28, 2013. On April 25, 2016, Iraq’s Communications and Media Commission suspended the license of Al Jazeera, accusing them of inciting violence through their coverage of recent events. 

© 2013 Reuters

The United States-led Coalition Provisional Authority established the media commission in March 2004, following the overthrow of the government of Saddam Hussein. CPA Order Number 65 allows for commission decisions to be appealed through a hearing before an independent appeals board.

Ibrahim told Human Rights Watch that he did not know yet whether they would appeal, and is skeptical that invoking this procedure would lead to the decision being overturned. “Even if we can get a court to confirm this decision is unlawful, given our experience with the CMC I highly doubt we will get anywhere,” he said. “This is not the first time they have gone after us, and I strongly believe that this is a politically motivated decision.”

On March 16, the commission shut down the Cairo-based, privately owned Al Baghdadia TV. The Interior Ministry issued a statement the next day stating the station was operating illegally and without a license. Najm al-Rubai`i, the director of the station, told Human Rights Watch that a man claiming to represent the commission came to the station offices in Baghdad on March 16, without prior notice and without any official paperwork, and said the station was being closed based on the basis of a 2014 decision by former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. In 2014, authorities had closed the station for almost a year. It was allowed to reopen after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered the withdrawal of all government lawsuits against journalists and media outlets in December 2014.

On March 20, al-Abadi told Human Rights Watch that the closure of Al Baghdadia was due to the channel’s “incitement,” referring to its coverage of the threat of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators breaking into the heavily fortified International Zone housing government institutions and foreign missions.

Human Rights Watch has previously raised concerns over the media commission’s “mandatory” guidelines, passed in June 2014, which unjustifiably restrict media freedom. The guidelines demand that media avoid making information about insurgent forces public and requires them to report on government forces only in favorable terms. Article 1 forbids media from broadcasting or publishing material that “may be interpreted as being against the security forces” and instead insists that they “focus on the security achievements of the armed forces, by repetition throughout the day.” This includes “praising the heroic acts of security personnel.”

Reporters Without Borders ranked Iraq 153 out of 180 for 2016, in terms of safety for news media staff, stating that armed clashes and politically motivated violence made it one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists. The organization also noted that “the government often closes down media outlets on the grounds that they are ‘sectarian’ or ‘not neutral.’

“The media in Iraq need protection from threats and political interference, not official muzzling,” Stork said. “The commission should demonstrate it understands its role in ensuring respect for free speech and reverse its decisions with respect to Al Jazeera and Al Baghdadia.”