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TV Station Boycott Row

Media rights groups defend banned Arab TV stations - ordinary Iraqis say they had it coming.
By Hiwa Osman

The Baghdad authorities' boycott of journalists from the Arab satellite TV stations Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya has outraged international press-freedom activists, but many Iraqis feel the move was long overdue.


The channels have been barred for two weeks from entering government buildings and news conferences held by public officials.


The measure comes after the 25-member Governing Council, GC, described their activities as "irresponsible". It said they were "endangering stability and democracy and encouraging terrorism" and would closely monitor them in future and provide reporting guidelines.


The channels, which deny the allegations, have been airing tapes of groups of masked gunmen reading statements calling on the people of Iraq to "resist occupation" and kill those who "collaborated" with the coalition.


The ban initially put a complete halt on the stations' operations for a month - which GC sources say the Americans felt was too long - and was later reduced to a fortnight.


In July, the US deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz accused Al-Jazeera of "very biased reporting" that incited violence against American troops in the country. The station demanded that he withdraw his comments and issue an apology.


Journalists and media organisations outside the country are critical of the decision to restrict the channels, but most Iraqis see it as a necessary step toward establishing some safety and security.


The Committee to Protect Journalists said the sanctions were "deeply troubling". Its Middle East Programme coordinator Joel Campagna said, "Penalising media outlets sets a poor precedent… The Governing Council should encourage open media."


Secretary General of Reporter San Frontiers Robert Ménard said broadcasting calls by terrorist groups or extremist political parties for armed rebellion does not make the stations 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," he said.


In its defence, Al-Arabiya stated that it "cannot ignore news that comes to it, whatever the source", insisting that it followed international journalistic standards and would never encourage violence by any party against another.


In an interview with CNN, Al-Jazeera spokesman Jihad Ballout said it tried to be as balanced as possible, " There's a situation..in Iraq..that seems to bring about various points of view..and we are doing our duty as journalists and trying to tell our viewers out there exactly what's going on."


The mood on the Iraqi street, however, has become quite hostile towards the two stations.


Reflecting a widely held view, Ali Barrak, a Baghdad resident who secretly owned a satellite TV receiver - banned by the former regime - in the run-up to the war, says that Al-Jazeera's reporting was so focused on potential ethnic and sectarian conflict in the country that "they made us all believe that we will kill one another once the regime collapsed".


Like many, Jihad Hussein, a Baghdad blacksmith who spent three years in prison under Saddam, was critical of the stations broadcasting recorded messages of the deposed Iraqi leader, "At a time when we try to get rid of the memories of horror, they keep frightening us, saying that he might come back."


Bakhtyar Amin, executive director of the International Alliance for Justice, an organisation that has monitored human rights abuses in Iraq for many years, said the channels were spreading sectarian and racial hatred.


"Would even a western democracy allow masked gunmen to appear on TV and make direct threats against government officials?" he asked.


The anger towards the channels has on some occasions been translated into violence against their crews on the streets. This week, an Al-Jazeera camera team, covering a story on a bomb blast in Baghdad, was attacked by passers-by.


Jawad Alumary, of the Al-Jazeera bureau in Baghdad, told an IWPR reporter that attacks against their crews had become a regular occurrence.


Iraqi state TV went off the air at the end of the war and the US set up a new station, the Iraqi Media Network. But the new broadcaster, which faced staffing and other bureaucratic problems, failed to win over local audiences who, instead, turned to Arab satellite channels.


Hiwa Osman is an editor/trainer with IWPR's Iraq programme.


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