by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
barring of two major Arab satellite TV stations from Iraqi government ministries and press events held by the country's governing council is an ominous sign for the future of the media in the nation, warn global press freedom groups.
New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said it was "deeply troubled" by the decision of the council, which makes recommendations to the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders "strongly condemned" the decision, calling it a "clear and blatant attack on press freedom."
The 25-person council says it took the action because of what it called "irresponsible activities" that threaten the country's "democracy and stability." Before the decision it had been rumored that the body had decided to expel al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya from Iraq altogether.
In an interview Sept. 24 with Radio Netherlands, council spokesman Entifadh Qanbar said the two stations were inciting violence against Iraqi and occupation authorities.
"This is not censorship. This is putting a stop to a system which is well funded by governments to promote violence in Iraq," he said, citing broadcasts by the two stations of tapes of ousted President Saddam Hussein and others calling for resistance against the occupation.
The head of the council's media committee, Samir Shakir Mahmoud Sumaidy, said the decision was designed to send "a signal that we will not any longer tolerate bad behavior by the media."
But CPJ called the action disturbing. "CPJ finds these sanctions deeply troubling," said its Middle East Program Coordinator Joel Campagna.
"Penalizing media outlets sets a poor precedent and raises serious questions about how Iraqi authorities will handle the broadcast or publication of negative news. The governing council should encourage open media," he said.
The controversy comes amid growing concerns about the CPA's attitude toward the press and a number of recent incidents in which media workers were assaulted by occupation troops.
While Iraq has seen a proliferation of newspapers since U.S. troops entered Baghdad in early April, a few have been summarily closed after the CPA accused them of incitement against occupation forces.
In addition, the Iraq Media Network (IMN), a CPA-run project put together by a major U.S. defense contractor, has reportedly taken over a number of radio stations in various parts of the country, effectively silencing independent voices.
Even more worrisome, according to human rights groups, are recent attacks on reporters. Last month, U.S. soldiers shot and killed Reuters cameraman Mazen Dana while he was filming outside Abu Ghraib prison in a Baghdad suburb, the site of a fatal mortar attack.
After an investigation denounced by RSF as a "sham," the Pentagon announced Tuesday that the soldiers, who said they had mistaken Dana's camera for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, had "acted within the rules of engagement."
Dana was the fifth journalist killed by U.S. fire in Iraq since the beginning of the war.
Last week, Associated Press (AP) photographer Karim Kadhim and his driver Qassim al-Saidi were fired on by U.S. soldiers when they approached a tank that was blocking the road near Khaldiya, the site of an earlier attack that day on U.S. soldiers.
Their car was hit by machine gunfire at least 20 times despite being clearly marked "PRESS" in large black letters. Only by jumping from the car did the media workers avoid injury or death, according to an account by Human Rights Watch (HRW), which investigated the incident.
Kadhim was detained by U.S. soldiers again Tuesday on a different highway west of Baghdad. He and a different driver were handcuffed and forced to stand in temperatures of some 110 degrees Fahrenheit and were denied water and the use of a telephone while soldiers accused them of being insurgents, according to AP.
They were eventually taken to a U.S. base nearby, where commanding officer Major Eric Wick apologized, insisting that the incident was based on a "misunderstanding on our part."
HRW also interviewed an Iraqi news assistant for the 'New York Times', Ghaith Abd al-Ahad, who reported that on Sept. 1, he had been twice thrown to the ground, handcuffed and verbally abused at a U.S. military checkpoint on a highway 20 miles north of Baghdad, the scene of an attack that killed one U.S. soldier earlier in the day.
The assaults took place despite Abd al-Ahad having shown the soldiers his press card and informing them that he worked for the Times. "One of the soldiers had his knee on my neck," he said. "When I said 'I work for the New York Times', he said, 'Oh, so you speak English', and he pushed his knee down harder."
The decision to restrict personnel from Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya has yet to be taken up by the CPA, the only body in Iraq that has executive authority.
It followed the attempted assassination Sunday on council member Akila Al-Hashimi, who died of her wounds Thursday. Two days earlier, Al-Arabiya had broadcast film showing armed and hooded men threatening to kill council members and anyone who worked with them.
Both Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera have broadcast several audio recordings purportedly by Saddam calling on Iraqis to fight the occupation.
U.S. officials have strongly criticized both stations, accusing them of giving too much coverage to attacks on U.S. forces and not enough on the progress made by the CPA to restore services and encourage popular participation in public affairs.
But Robert Menard, director of RSF, said the curbs on the two stations cannot be justified. "When media such as these broadcast calls by terrorist groups or extremist political parties for armed violence, they are not themselves guilty of incitement to violence."
"They are doing their job of informing the public and dealing journalistically with the important subject of terrorism, a phenomenon they have not themselves created."
The Bush administration has long had an ambivalent relationship with Qatar-based Al-Jazeera.
During the Afghan campaign in late 2001, U.S. precision bombs destroyed Al-Jazeera's office in Kabul. The Pentagon later insisted it was not aware that its offices were in the building.
U.S. forces also bombed Al-Jazeera's offices in Baghdad, killing a well-known correspondent. Washington later called the incident "a grave mistake" and apologized.
At the same time, senior U.S. officials agreed to be interviewed frequently by Al-Jazeera in the run-up to the attack on Iraq to explain their positions to the station's huge audience in the Arab world.
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