BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – The Iraqi government ordered the closure of a popular independent television channel on Monday for inciting sectarianism, two days after the hanging of Saddam Hussein sparked anger among his fellow Sunni Arabs.
Sharkiya is owned by a London-based Iraqi businessman and says it takes an independent editorial line, though many viewers see it as leaning toward a minority Sunni Arab viewpoint.
The channel was still showing programming on Monday, as it broadcasts from Dubai, and it was not immediately clear what impact the government’s order would have.
Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier Abdul Karim Khalaf said the government had ordered the channel to close indefinitely. “We have warned them many times not to broadcast any false news that would increase tension in Iraq,” Khalaf told Reuters, declining to specify which particular reports were false.
The order comes two days after Saddam’s execution for crimes against humanity over the killing of Shi’ite Muslims.
The execution, which was rushed through by Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government at the start of a religious holiday, and video of the hanging that showed Shi’ite officials taunting Saddam before his death, have raised fears of a backlash.
Asked if the move was prompted by Sharkiya’s coverage of the execution, Khalaf said: “In the last three days if you watch their channel you can see they are leading people to violence and increasing the sectarian tension.”
An employee of Sharkiya in Baghdad who declined to be identified said the channel had very few staff left in Baghdad and nearly all programming was done from Dubai.
It was not the first time the government has clamped down on the media. The Interior Ministry ordered two television stations off the air in November when Saddam was convicted on the grounds they were inciting violence.
One of those channels was controlled by a prominent Sunni Arab politician and the other is based in Saddam’s Sunni home region. The government already bans pan-Arab news station Al Jazeera and forced its main rival, Al-Arabiya, to shut its Baghdad bureau for a month in September. Al Jazeera’s new English-language service has started reporting from Baghdad recently.
Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority, which enjoyed political power and patronage under Saddam, has lost power since his overthrow by U.S. troops, with Shi’ites and ethnic Kurds dominating the U.S.-backed political process.
Sharkiya has been seen by many as one of the more independent channels among an array of local and national outlets, most of which are overtly controlled by political parties and factions. It is owned by businessman Saad al-Bazaz, who also owns a widely read daily newspaper, Azzaman.
As with other media, several journalists and employees of Sharkiya have been killed, including one of Iraq’s best known satirists, Waleed Hassan, who was shot dead in November.