Iraq backs off on plans to force closure of 44 media outlets


BAGHDAD — Iraq has suspended plans to close 44 media operations in the country, including the BBC and Voice of America, after an outcry by press freedom advocates, an official said Tuesday.

The Communications and Media Commission that regulates the news media in Iraq will give the targeted organizations more time to pay outstanding fees and renew lapsed licenses, deputy director Ali Nasir said.

The commission denied that its previous order to close the agencies, most of them Iraqi, represented a crackdown on a free press. No media outlets were known to be actually shut down.

Still, the Iraqi press watchdog Journalistic Freedoms Observatory decried the order as “a setback to the freedom of journalism in Iraq.”

The group accused the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of trying to silence critics. The dispute called 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.

Nasir said Tuesday that five organizations, including the BBC and U.S.-funded Radio Sawa, are working with the media commission to settle licensing problems and pay fees, which he said amount to about $20,000 per year for radio stations.

Most of the other organizations on the list are Iraqi, including prominent broadcasters that had criticized al-Maliki but also Shiite religious programming that had no apparent political stance.

Some of the broadcasters targeted for closure are using frequencies that are either licensed to other stations or used by security forces, Nasir said.

Voice of America said in a statement Monday that it was operating normally, adding that “this appears to be a regulatory matter concerning frequencies and licensing that is being discussed between local and federal officials in Iraq.” It said there is “no indication that this regulatory issue is being directed at VOA reporters in the field.”

Lala Najafova, a publicist for the BBC, said Sunday that the British broadcaster is working to renew its license. She said the delay is due to technicalities and no BBC reporters had been restricted in their work.

The Journalistic Freedoms Observatory welcomed the reprieve on Tuesday, but director Ziyad al-Aajely said media licensing is still too difficult and fees are too high.

“The CMC’s task and duty is to support media development, not to put hurdles on the way of the journalists,” al-Aajely said.