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Iraq’s media crackdown: hypocrisy and futility

Sharif Nashashibi

Published: Updated:

A freer media was one of the few tangible benefits that proponents of the invasion of Iraq could subsequently cite to justify their stance (as if the price paid by Iraqis was worth it). However, media freedoms have been continuously curtailed since, and with particular zeal by the increasingly dictatorial current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The Communications and Media Commission’s suspension on April 28 of the licenses of 10 satellite TV stations, without warning, is but the latest in a series of government crackdowns against the industry, but one that Human Rights Watch has described as “a new level of interference.”

The Commission has accused the channels, among them Al Jazeera, of “inciting violence and sectarianism.” Besides the CMC reportedly being unable to provide any supporting evidence, the government has killed and injured hundreds of protesters accusing it of sectarian policies.

Act of desperation

This is brazen hypocrisy, and a classic example of shooting the messenger. It is unsurprising that those targeted do not include state media or pro-government news outlets. So much for the CMC’s laughable claim that its decision is not political.

“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,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East director.

It is unsurprising that those targeted do not include state media or pro-government news outlets.

Sharif Nashashibi

I doubt that even the authorities believe their own rhetoric. This is an act of desperation, in the wake of anti-government demonstrations that have grown considerably in frequency and size since last December, amidst the wider Arab Spring.

It is hard to fathom that Maliki would be so delusional as to think there would be no protest movement without these news organizations. Indeed, demonstrations have continued and intensified despite the authorities blocking journalists’ access to them since December.

The fact is that they are reporting events on the ground. That is their job, but the CMC is trying to ensure that they can no longer do so, because it is deeply damaging and embarrassing to the government. As such, the suspension has been widely condemned by media organizations, watchdogs and advocacy groups. “This draconian and disproportionate decision has seriously endangered freedom of information,” said Reporters Without Borders.

“The Iraqi government is conflating dissent with incitement,” said Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. The suspension “is clearly designed to stifle reporting on the ongoing violence,” he added. The CMC’s claim that its decision did not involve Maliki is nonsense, given that it is an official body over which he has nominal supervision.

Violating the constitution

The crackdown is illegal and violates the Iraqi constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech. Furthermore, article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression,” and “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.”

The crackdown is likely to prove ineffective. Viewers will still be able to watch the channels because they are all based abroad, and their audiences may even increase due to the attention brought about by the suspension. Furthermore, while their journalists are now barred from reporting in Iraq, the stations could easily rely on citizen journalists on the ground.

Maliki has learned nothing from other Arab countries, where people have become increasingly adept at circumventing media crackdowns via social media and technologies such as mobile phones.

The suspension will not stop people from informing or being informed. What it will do is add to Maliki’s reputation as yet another regional dictator. This is self-defeating, as it will only embolden protesters who will see more proof of their marginalization, and thus further cause to demonstrate. That might sound obvious, but Arab leaders, Maliki included, have been bafflingly slow to catch on.

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Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.