Sameer N. Yacoub
BAGHDAD: Iraqi authorities suspended the operating licenses of pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera and nine Iraqi TV channels on Sunday after accusing them of escalating sectarian tension. The move signaled the Shiite-led government’s mounting worries over deteriorating security amid Sunni unrest and clashes that have left more than 180 people dead in less than a week.
The suspensions, which took effect immediately, appeared to target mainly Sunni channels known for criticizing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government. Apart from Al-Jazeera, the decision affected eight Sunni and one Shiite channels.
The government’s action comes as Baghdad tries to quell rising unrest in the country that erupted last week after Iraqi security forces launched a deadly crackdown on a Sunni protest site in the central city of Hawija, killing 23 people, including three soldiers.
Since then, more than 180 people have been killed in gunbattles with security forces and other attacks. The recent wave of violence follows more than four months of largely peaceful protests by Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority against al-Maliki’s government.
Iraqi viewers will still be able to watch the channels, but the suspensions issued by Iraq’s Communications and Media Commission state that if the 10 stations try to work on Iraqi territory they will face legal action from security forces. The decree essentially prevents news crews from the stations from reporting on activities in Iraq.
Sunni lawmaker Dahfir al-Ani described the move as part of the government’s attempts “to cover up the bloodshed that took place in Hawija and what is going on in other places in the country.”
Al-Jazeera, based in the small, energy-rich Gulf nation of 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 said in an emailed statement. “We urge the authorities to uphold freedom for the media to report the important stories taking place in Iraq.”
The channel has aggressively covered the “Arab Spring” uprisings across the region, and has broadcast extensively on the civil war in neighboring Syria. Qatar itself is a harsh critic of the Syrian regime. The nation is a leading backer of the rebels and is accused by many supporters of the Iraqi government of backing protests in Iraq too.
Newspapers and media outlets sprang up across Baghdad after the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003, yet Iraq remains one of the deadliest countries for reporters with more than 150 killed since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Iraq and other governments across the Middle East have temporarily shut down Al-Jazeera’s offices in the past because they were disgruntled by its coverage.