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Iraq Orders Closure of TV Station Office

Associated Press | January 1, 2007
CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The Iraqi government Monday ordered the closure of the Baghdad office of a Dubai-based television station whose newscaster wore black mourning clothes while reporting on the hanging of Hussein.

A spokesman for the Interior Ministry said the Al-Sharqiya station, owned by a former chief of radio and television for Saddam, had incited violence and hatred in its coverage and had ignored warnings to stop.

Brigadier Abdul-Karim Khalaf, the spokesman, said the order was issued after an allegedly false report by the news channel about the abduction of three Sunni Arab female students from a university.

But the order also followed criticism of the tone of Al-Sharqiya's coverage of Saturday's execution, which struck some as sympathetic to the ousted dictator.

In contrast to state-run television reports that described Saddam as a "tyrant" and "criminal," a newscaster on Al-Sharqiya - which means "The Eastern One" - referred to him Sunday as "president."

Iraq's government is dominated by the country's Shiite Muslim majority. Al-Sharqiya is sometimes mocked by critics as "Al-Baathiya" for its alleged sympathies for Saddam's outlawed Baath Party, which had helped Iraq's Sunni minority rule the country.

Shiite and Sunni are now locked in a sectarian war that has claimed thousands of lives.

It's not clear how the closure might effect Al-Sharqiya, which broadcasts to Iraq from Dubai by satellite.

Al-Sharqiya reported Monday night that its offices in Baghdad were raided and sealed by Iraqi authorities. But the station said those offices were vacated three months ago in response to attacks on staff.

Al-Sharqiya remained on the air Monday, broadcasting video of a protest against Saddam's execution that was staged by the Professional Associations - an umbrella group of unions representing doctors, engineers and lawyers - at the group's offices in Amman, Jordan.

Saddam's eldest daughter, Raghad, briefly attended the demonstration in her first public appearance since his execution.

State-run Al-Iraqiya may have referred to the controversy over Al-Sharqiya's coverage, when it criticized reporting on Saddam's death by rival Iraqi and regional Arab television stations.

"The execution of Saddam unveiled the many masks of those who don't like to see a strong, civilized and developed Iraq," an Al-Iraqiya newscaster said Monday. "The male and female news readers of some Arab and Iraqi satellite channels rushed to their cupboards to wear their black clothes, announcing their sorrow about the joy of Iraqis."

Newscasters on the influential Al-Jazeera satellite channel also wore black in the aftermath of Saddam's hanging.

The government did not specifically cite the controversy over Al-Sharqiya's coverage of Saddam's execution in explaining the closure.

"We had sent many warnings to the channel previously, but it insisted on circulating false news that provoked violence and hatred," said Khalaf, the interior ministry spokesman.

On Nov. 30, the Interior Ministry said it had formed a special unit to monitor news coverage and vowed to take legal action against journalists who failed to correct stories the ministry deemed to be incorrect. The ministry runs the Iraqi national police and a separate paramilitary force.

The purpose of the monitoring unit, Khalaf said at the time, was to find "fabricated and false news that hurts and gives the Iraqis a wrong picture that the security situation is very bad, when the facts are totally different."

Al-Sharqiya's programming includes a number of Iraqi soap operas. Its owner, Saad al-Bazzaz, fled Iraq years before Saddam's fall and returned after the regime collapsed.

Prominent employees of Al-Sharqiya have fallen victim to Iraq's violence. Those slain include correspondent Ahmed al-Rasheed, and Walid Hassan, a famous comedian who was shot while driving in western Baghdad.

Hassan had performed in a comedy series called "Caricature," which mocked coalition forces and Iraqi governments since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

 

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