|Date: Sep 3, 2019|
|Source: The Daily Star|
|Iraq suspends U.S.-funded broadcaster over report on corruption in religious bodies|
BAGHDAD: Iraq has suspended the license of a U.S.-government-funded broadcaster after it ran an investigation alleging corruption within the country’s religious institutions. The country’s media regulator Monday shut down the local offices of Al Hurra television - a regional network funded by the U.S. Agency for Global Media - for three months, accusing the network of bias and defamation in its report.
“The program failed to uphold the principles of media professionalism,” a statement from the Communications and Media Commission said, accusing the reporters of using anonymous sources to defame and to cause moral injury.
The 12-minute documentary broadcast Saturday claimed that Sunni and Shiite Muslim authorities were misusing state funds and had suspicious ties to armed factions.
The Sunni endowment denied the allegations in the report and said it would take legal steps against the channel. The Shiite endowment could not immediately be reached for comment.
In addition to the three-month suspension, Al Hurra was ordered to stop all activities until “they correct their position” and to issue a formal apology, the CMC decision said.
“These steps are tantamount to a final warning to the station, and a tougher punishment will be taken in case this offense is repeated,” the statement said.
The report was condemned by influential political figures, who questioned its veracity.
Al Hurra stood by the report in a statement, calling it “fair, balanced and professional,” and adding: “During the extensive preparations of the report over time, individuals and institutions were given the right of reply, which they declined. We still offer those same institutions the opportunity to reply.”
Founded in 2004, the channel is widely watched in Iraq and part of the wider Al Hurra network, which is funded by the U.S. Congress and directed from Washington. The controversy comes at a time of heightened tensions between Baghdad’s two main allies, Washington and Tehran, with pro-Iran factions ratcheting up discourse against the U.S.
Al Hurra’s report prompted an avalanche of condemnations, with critics suggesting it showed the U.S. was adopting an aggressive stance toward their country. The mainly Shiite militias known as Al-Hashd al-Shaabi, founded in 2014 by an edict from the top Shiite religious authority in Iraq Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, accused Al Hurra of “a hostile news policy.” Qais al-Khazali, who heads the powerful Asaib Ahl al-Haq faction within the Hashd, slammed the report as “a dangerous indication of U.S. foreign policy.”
Iraq’s Sunni religious establishment said the report was full of “lies” and said it was preparing a lawsuit against Al Hurra.
Iraq is ranked near the bottom of Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) media freedom index. It owes its ranking of 156 out of 180 countries to routine attacks, arbitrary detentions and intimidation of journalists by militias and pro-government groups, according to RSF. “Iraq still has no law on access to state-held information,” RSF says on its website. “Investigative reporting on corruption or embezzlement exposes journalists to serious threats.”
Neither the U.S. Department of State nor the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad oversees the content of Al Hurra’s programming, Embassy spokesperson Pedro Martin said.
“Al Hurra’s mission is to deliver accurate and objective information on the region, American policies and Americana,” he said. “The government of Iraq has the right to question Al Hurra on any reporting that is perceived to be false or unprofessional and has the right to respond with their position.”