Iraq's Communication and Media Commission suspended Al-Hurra TV channel for three months, claiming it had abusively criticized religious authorities over corruption.
The announcement was made on Monday afternoon, and raises concerns about whether the channel, which is funded by the US government, was targeted solely due to the one controversial report, or because of ulterior motives amid tensions between the US and pro-Iranian groups in Iraq.
Iraq's Communication Commission had alleged that the program on Al-Hurra looking at corruption among Islamic charities that are close to various religious establishments had angered the public and abused religious leaders.
"The investigative short documentary heavily focused on alleged nepotism and rampant corruption," Rudaw reported. Supporters of the channel, which is popular in Iraq, wondered why the authorities were targeting its free speech.
However religious authorities, including Sunni charities, were angered and had called for the channel to be upbraided. Iraq's parliamentary speaker, Mohammed Al-Halbousi, said that the authorities must take a role in making sure channels are professional and not "abusing state and religious institutions."
According to a report at The National, the US Embassy said that "the Iraqi government has the right to respond and hold the channel accountable for any report it believes is inaccurate, unprofessional or contradicts US policy."
The embassy's statement appeared to balance its assertion that Al-Hurra "deals with regional topics in a clear and transparent manner," while not going further and opposing the government decision. Even though Al-Hurra receives support from the US government, its programming is independent.
Al-Hurra Iraq Television has been a standout within Al-Hurra as a whole, one of the top performers in the market over the last decade. Al-Hurra overall received 16 million viewers a week in 2017, and has recently gone through a major face-lift. According to a report in The National, the channel had 22 reporters in Iraq. The channel has to compete in Iraq against numerous other channels, including the big players such as Al Jazeera or Al-Iraqiya, Al-Sumaria, and Kurdish channels like Rudaw. Iraq has suspended TV channels in the past, and sectarian and other issues have led to attacks on channels or attempts to intimidate them. In 2013, Iraq suspended Al Jazeera, Al-Sharqiya, and 10 satellite channels due to sectarian violence. The NRT satellite channel was also suspended locally in 2017.
The larger question about the suspension of Al-Hurra is whether it is part of larger anti-American rhetoric in Iraq that has emerged in recent weeks due to Iran-US tensions.
Some Shi'ite paramilitary groups have held the US responsible for alleged airstrikes on their facilities, claiming the US cleared the way for Israeli actions. Other reports have sought to spread propaganda about Israel, with Iraqi media channels even reporting the presence of an "Israeli base" in the country. El-Etejah ran cartoons showing the US depicted as Uncle Sam pushing a baby carriage, with the baby depicted as Israel. Iraqi channels have also suggested that the US supports ISIS, and has spread other inaccurate stories.
In general, the media space in Iraq is so broad and diverse that it is surprising to see that Al-Hurra is suddenly being made an example of, over allegations its reports were inaccurate or against religious institutions. It could be more likely that the report was used as an excuse to go after a channel perceived as being linked to the US.
Seth Frantzman, a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (Gefen, 2019). He is the op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.