Fears over Iraqi Al Jazeera ban

International journalism bodies Reporters Without Borders and the International Federation of Journalists have condemned the Iraqi interim government’s decision to extend indefinitely its month-long ban on pan-Arab satellite news channel Al Jazeera, preventing it from broadcasting from the country, following a raid on its Baghdad bureau last weekend.

The ban – imposed by the Iraqi National Security Committee on 7 August and resulting in the closure of the 103-strong bureau – was extended after the Iraqi administration said it had received no response from the station to suggestions that its broadcasts had incited violence.

The office of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi also accused Al Jazeera of continuing to operate from Iraq despite the ban, which the broadcaster vowed to do at the time it was barred.

The news channel said the move was unjustified and contrary to pledges made by the interim Iraqi government “to start a new era of free speech and openness”.

Atwar Bahjat, one of Al Jazeera’s on-screen reporters in Iraq, said officials wanted the channel to become a “government TV channel”.

“Although most of the current Iraqi officials are former exiles and opponents of Saddam Hussein and have lived a considerable part of their lives in the West, they still cannot accept the truth when it is not in their favour,” she said.

“Journalists inside and outside Iraq will be dismayed at this significant blow to hopes for democracy and free expression,” said Aidan White, IFJ general secretary.

“Iraq cannot shake off the legacy of war, intolerance and an era of tyranny by closing down independent voices just because rulers disagree with what they say.”

The IFJ said it was also concerned about “bizarre and confused” restrictions imposed by Canadian broadcasting regulators on cable companies that show the channel.

It added that the authorities have ordered programming to be monitored and tapes reviewed before going public. Al Jazeera claimed the restriction targeted the station and that such restrictions, ironically, did not exist in the US and Israel – staunch and stern critics of the channel.

“This is an unacceptable and unprecedented intrusion that compromises the rights of Arab speakers in Canada,” said White.

“Cable companies will not take any channel if regulators impose bizarre and confused restrictions.”

RWB said the ban “contradicts previous statements of good intent and confirms the trend toward rebuilding the country at the expense of democracy and press freedom”.

Wale Azeez

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