- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 7, 2004

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government yesterday closed the Iraqi offices of the Arab television station Al Jazeera for 30 days, accusing it of inciting violence.

A spokesman for Al Jazeera called the closure “unwise” and said it restrained freedom of the press.

“It is a regrettable decision, but Al Jazeera will endeavor to cover the situation in Iraq as best as we can within the constraints,” spokesman Jihad Ballout said.

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said the government convened an independent commission a month ago to monitor Al Jazeera’s daily coverage “to see what kind of violence they are advocating, inciting hatred and problems and racial tension.”

Based on the commission’s finding, the National Security Committee ordered the monthlong closure, he said.

Iraqi Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib said the closure was intended to give the station “a chance to readjust their policy against Iraq.”

“They have been showing a lot of crimes and criminals on TV, and they transfer a bad picture about Iraq and about Iraqis and encourage criminals to increase their activities,” he said.

“We want to protect our people.”

Senior U.S. officials also have criticized Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Iraq war, calling the network an outlet for the al Qaeda terror network, broadcasting videotapes and audiotapes purportedly from Osama bin Laden or his aides. Al Jazeera denied the accusations.

Mr. Ballout said the network was not given a reason for the closure. He said the closure inhibits the “right of the Arab people around the world to see a comprehensive picture about what’s going on in an important region like Iraq.”

The station has run into trouble before in Iraq since the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein last year.

The Iraqi Governing Council, in place during the U.S. occupation, banned the station’s reporters from entering its offices or covering its press conferences for a month in January because it had reportedly shown disrespect toward prominent Iraqis.

That was the second such council ban on the station.

During a July 25 interview with Al Jazeera in Moscow, interim Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari accused the channel of biased reporting and implied its journalists could be barred from the country.

“We do not tolerate those who exploit the freedom of the media,” Mr. Zebari said. “These channels have become channels for provocation against the interest, security and safety of the Iraqi people, and the Iraqi government will not be lenient toward such behavior.”

Al Jazeera occasionally has encountered problems with authorities in other Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan and the former Iraqi regime. Unlike Arab state-run media, the Qatar-based station often airs views of local opposition figures and their criticisms of their countries’ rulers.

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