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Iraq: Authorities Treading Fine Line In Action Against Al-Arabiyah

The U.S.-appointed interim government in Iraq has temporarily banned an Arabic-language television station from operating in the country for airing an audiotape purportedly from former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. On the tape, the speaker calls for attacks against coalition forces in Iraq. The ban was supported by the U.S., but has been criticized by media groups for violating rights to freedom of expression. RFE/RL looks at the fine line between what are considered legitimate bans of hate speech and incitement, on the one hand, and censorship on the other.

Prague, 25 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council has accused Al-Arabiyah satellite television station of inciting violence and ordered it to stop operating in Iraq.

The order to stop broadcasting comes amid continuing attacks on coalition forces in the country. It follows a decision earlier this month by Dubai-based Al-Arabiyah to broadcast an audiotape purportedly by former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. On the tape, the speaker calls on Iraqis to attack coalition forces.

The ban was announced by the current head of the Governing Council, Jalal Talabani. "We have decided to ban Al-Arabiyah in Iraq for a certain period of time because it broadcast an invitation to murder, an incitement to murder by the voice of Saddam Hussein," Talabani said. "Although freedom of expression is guaranteed here, incitement to murder is forbidden in every country of the world." Talabani said authorities were planning to file lawsuits against Al-Arabiyah and its parent network.

The U.S. State Department defended the ban. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, "[The Iraqi Governing Council has] been trying to work with the news media who are represented in Baghdad, but also try to avoid a situation where these media are used as a channel for incitement, for inflammatory statements, and for statements and actions that harm the security of people who live and work in Baghdad, including the Iraqi citizens themselves."

Boucher said the Iraqi authorities have to make judgments between legitimate reporting of news events and reports that are simply incitement. "Some of the broadcasts from Baghdad, in particular, have caused the Governing Council to feel that this is inflammatory, that this is decidedly unhelpful and dangerous to the security situation, and that they had to deal with it," he said. "And so that's what they're doing out there."

Al-Arabiyah denies any anticoalition bias. It says punishing the media will not end violence against coalition forces. The station said in a statement: "Al-Arabiyah regrets this surprising measure and rejects the violence incitement charge by the interim Governing Council and confirms that its policy adhered and still adheres to covering the news in an objective and precise manner." The station's bureau chief in Baghdad, Wihad Yaqub, told reporters the channel will continue to broadcast material on Iraq, but will not operate out of a Baghdad bureau.

The council's action is not an isolated case. In the past, democratic governments have chosen to temporarily limit freedom of expression where an imminent threat to security exists or the greater public good is threatened. Such decisions, however, are not taken lightly.

Rohan Jayasekera, an associate editor of the London-based "Index on Censorship" publication, told RFE/RL that he understands the action, but points out that currently in Iraq there is no judiciary process whereby Al-Arabiyah can contest the ban. "Every country in the world I think has some kind of legislation which allows the government to impose restrictions on the media in case of issues of national security," he said. "Britain, of course, has the Official Secrets Act. But the point is, of course, this is legislation. And with legislation comes some kind of judicial process, some kind of due process in which the journalist who is subjected to [a] professional order can contest it."

Jayasekera questions whether any ban can really succeed in today's world of satellite-based communications. The answer to this, he says, is for media organizations to take responsibility for their own broadcasts. "What is needed is for the Iraqi media to take a more responsible attitude to its own development, to its own responsibilities to the people of Iraq," he said. "And that is going to require some kind of press council, some kind of arbitration body, on which the lead is taken by journalists. And the journalists should take the responsibility for putting their own house in order."

Independent media groups have been mostly critical of the ban. The New York-based Committee To Protect Journalists condemned the action, saying statements from Hussein are inherently newsworthy. The Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders called the action a violation of freedom of the press and at odds with the promise of setting up democracy in Iraq.

Al-Arabiyah was launched this year, shortly before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, with the ambition of overtaking popular Al-Jazeera satellite TV as a more balanced news provider. The channel belongs to the Middle East News production company owned by the brother-in-law of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd.