Iraq suspends US-funded broadcaster Al Hurra over graft investigation

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq has suspended the license of a U.S.-government funded broadcaster after it ran an investigation alleging corruption within the country’s religious institutions.

The country’s media regulator on Monday shut down the local offices of Al Hurra television - a regional network funded by the U.S. Agency for Global Media - for three months, accusing the network of bias and defamation in their report.

“The program failed to uphold the principles of media professionalism,” a statement from the Communications and Media Commission (CMC) said, accusing the reporters of using anonymous sources to defame and to cause moral injury.

The investigative report, which aired on Saturday, alleged corruption within the Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim endowments - state bodies that administer religious sites and real estate - including foundations linked to Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. It also said the bodies have ties to armed groups.

The Sunni endowment denied the allegations in the report and said they would take legal steps against the channel. The Shi’ite endowment could not immediately be reached for comment.

In addition to the three-month suspension, Al Hurra was ordered to stop all activities until “they correct their position” and to issue a formal apology, the CMC decision said.

The report was condemned by influential political figures, who questioned its veracity.

Al Hurra stood by their report in a statement, calling it “fair, balanced and professional.”

“During the extensive preparations of the report over time, individuals and institutions were given the right of reply, which they declined. We still offer those same institutions the opportunity to reply.”

Iraq is currently ranked near the bottom of Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) media freedom index. It owes its current ranking of 156 out of 180 countries to routine attacks, arbitrary detentions and intimidation of journalists by militias and pro-government groups, according to RSF.

“Iraq still has no law on access to state-held information,” RSF says on its website. “Investigative reporting on corruption or embezzlement exposes journalists to serious threats.”

Neither the U.S. Department of State nor the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad oversees the content of Al Hurra’s programming, Embassy Spokesperson Pedro Martin said.

“Alhurra’s mission is to deliver accurate and objective information on the region, American policies and Americana,” he said. “The Government of Iraq has the right to question Al Hurra on any reporting that is perceived to be false or unprofessional and has the right to respond with their position.”

Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein, Ahmed Rasheed and Raya Jalabi in Baghdad, Writing by Raya Jalabi, Editing by William Maclean