BAGHDAD An Iraqi regulatory body has ordered the closure of 44 media outlets in the country including the BBC and Voice of America in a dispute over broadcast licenses, sources with knowledge of the order said on Sunday, but no action has yet been taken.
Other organizations targeted for shutdown include privately-owned local TV channels Sharqiya and Baghdadia as well as U.S.-financed Radio Sawa.
A senior source at the Communications and Media Commission (CMC), the body responsible for the order, said the move had nothing to do with the way the outlets had reported on sectarian conflict in the country, as some reports have suggested.
"The CMC sent such a letter warning them that they're going to shut down their services because they didn't pay (their license fees)," a senior source at the CMC told Reuters.
The regulator had passed its order to the Baghdad operations command, the source added, referring to the local law enforcement forces who would carry out the closures.
"This is totally wrong and unwise as it comes at a time when the country is plunged into political uncertainty," Ziyad al-Ajili, head of the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, said.
"What we are confident of is that the decision was not political, but its negative implications will definitely have political implications on the government and harm the reputation of Iraq as a free country," he added.
The BBC said it was negotiating the renewal of its license with the Iraqi authorities.
"The delay is due to technicalities," it said in a statement. "The BBC's journalists in Baghdad are not currently experiencing any issues reporting from the country, and it is important that the BBC and other international news organizations are able to operate freely and bring independent and impartial news to audiences in Iraq and the wider region."
Some of the outlets on the list no longer operate bureau in Iraq.
Iraq's main political factions have been locked in a crisis since December, with opponents of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki accusing the Shi'ite leader of trying to consolidate power at their expense.
Maliki is trying to fend off attempts by Sunni, Kurd and some Shi'ite rivals to organize a vote of no-confidence against him.
(Reporting by Serena Chaudhry and Ahmed Rasheed; Additional reporting by Stephen Mangan; Writing by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Andrew Osborn)