BAGHDAD (AP) — An Iraqi press freedom group condemned authorities on Sunday for ordering the closure of 44 news organizations, including a U.S.-funded radio station. The country's media commission said it was only targeting unlicensed operations.
No media outlet is reported to have been forced to close so far. But critics say Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom they accuse of sidelining and silencing opponents in order to consolidate his Shiite party's power, is sending a warning to the media.
The dispute calls into question the future of Iraq's fledgling democracy, nine years after the ouster of Saddam Hussein and six months after the last of the U.S. troops who overthrew him withdrew.
Ziyad al-Aajely, head of the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, called the move to shut down media offices "a setback to the freedom of journalism in Iraq."
"It is a government message to the media outlets that if you are not with us, then you are against us," he said by telephone.
The list, which officials say was compiled a month ago, only became public on Sunday.
Most of the 44 newspapers, radio and television stations targeted for shutdown are Iraqi, although foreign broadcasters including the BBC and Voice of America were on the list as well as the U.S.-funded Radio Sawa. The BBC and Voice of America have closed most permanent news operations in Iraq.
Safaa Rabie, the head of Iraq's Communications and Media Commission, said the commission only seeks to close offices without an operating license. He confirmed the commission had forwarded the list to the Ministry of Interior seeking help in shutting the offices down.
"It is an organizational matter, not a crackdown on the press," Rabie said.
However, one broadcaster targeted for shutdown, U.S.-funded Radio Sawa, says it does have a license.
"We were surprised to see our radio station on the list because we think that we work in accordance with all Iraqi laws," Sawa deputy director Salah Nasrawi said.
Radio Sawa — operated by Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Inc., which is funded by the U.S. Congress — was broadcasting normally on Sunday.
Nasrawi would not say why he thought Radio Sawa was on the list. "We do not want to speculate or to launch hasty accusations. Bureaucracy and the delays in the government offices might be behind this."
An official with Jordan-based satellite television station al-Babelyia also said his organization has a valid operating license in Iraq but was nevertheless on the list for shutdown. Saif Muthana, deputy director for Iraq operations, declined to comment further.
While some of the news organizations targeted for shutdown are critical of the government, including Sarqiya and Baghdadia television stations, others are religious broadcasters like al-Kawthar and the Quran channel and have no apparent political agenda.
The al-Maliki government faced other accusations of press crackdowns in recent days when supporters of firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr staged street protests in Baghdad decrying what they called the muzzling of independent views.
"In our beloved Iraq, the government is always interfering in the affairs of media outlets and trying to politicize them," al-Sadr wrote in a letter to a supporter on a website affiliated with his movement.