The top military spokesman in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta, said he was filing a lawsuit seeking to close the Baghdad office of Al Hayat, one of the most prominent newspapers in the Arab world, as well as the satellite signal of Al Sharqiya, a popular Iraqi television channel that has been a strong critic of the government. The lawsuit was announced on the Web site of the Baghdad Operations Command, which coordinates Iraqi security forces in the capital.The National Media Center of the Council of Ministers criticized local, Arab and international news media on Monday for recent reports about arrests of members of the Awakening Councils. “These attempts by some media to depict wanted persons as heroes targeted by security forces provoke hateful sectarian strife in order to damage Iraqi unity,” the government said in a statement, adding that such reports “make us wonder about the true goals of these campaigns and the groups behind them.”
That's not a good sign. Reminds me of the bad old days of 2004-2005 when the Iraqi government and MNF-I were routinely attacking the Arab media for fueling the insurgency and the offices of al-Jazeera and other satellite television stations were shuttered. You would think that they would have learned from the experience of banning al-Jazeera, which didn't prevent it from covering Iraqi politics but did reduce the access that officials had to its airtime.
Going after al-Hayat is a strange choice. Al-Hayat is not sensationalist compared to many other Arab sources. It continues to cover Iraq heavily at a time when both Western and Arab media attention has dwindled; today's stories include Awakenings leader Ali Hatem's positive response to the Iraqi government's promise to pay their wages and integrate them into the security forces. Like many papers, it's stronger in covering some issues than others, but it has consistently had some of the best coverage of Iraqi politics (perhaps just because it has had some particularly good journalists working there including Mushriq Abbas, or perhaps because Iraq is farther away from the ownership's core concerns in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon). There may be also be a regional political dimension here in the move against a Saudi-owned paper, as the Iraqi government has evidently been deeply frustrated with Saudi Arabia's continuing foot-dragging on opening an embassy, forgiving debt, and so forth.
The most important point, though, is that this would be a serious blow against media freedoms during a crucial period in the consolidation of a new Iraqi political order. At a time when many Iraqis and Iraq-watchers worry about a creeping authoritarianism in the Maliki government, this move against al-Hayat and al-Sharqiya is a screaming red flag. Let's hope that it is quickly reversed.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.