BAGHDAD, Iraq – The U.S.-appointed government raided the offices of Al-Arabiya (search) television on Monday, banned its broadcasts from Iraq and threatened to imprison its journalists. Media groups said the action called into question the future of a free press in the country.
Al-Arabiya said it would not fight the ban and would report on Iraq from its headquarters in Dubai (search).
The Iraqi Governing Council banned the station, one of the Arab world's largest, from working in Iraq for broadcasting an audiotape a week ago of a voice it said belonged to Saddam Hussein (search). The U.S.-appointed council did not say how long the ban would be in effect.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher defended the ban. Boucher said the aim was to try "to avoid a situation where these media are used as a channel for incitement, for inflammatory statements, and for statements and actions that harm the security of the people who live and work in Baghdad, including Iraqi citizens themselves."
In Baghdad, Jalal Talabani, the current council president, said, "Al-Arabiya incites murder because it's calling for killings through the voice of Saddam Hussein."
Shortly after Talabani finished his news conference, about 20 Iraqi police officers raided Al-Arabiya's offices in Baghdad's Mansour neighborhood, making lists of equipment to be seized if it continued to report from Baghdad, said station correspondent Ali al-Khatib, reporting live from the Iraqi capital.
The officers also raided the Middle East Broadcasting Center, a mostly entertainment network that shares offices with Al-Arabiya and is owned by the same Saudi company.
Al-Khatib said the officers, who carried an order from the Governing Council, told employees they would be fined $1,000 and imprisoned for a year for each violation. He said police told correspondents the council might reconsider its decision if the news channel writes a letter pledging never to encourage terrorism.
After an hour of discussions with police, Al-Arabiya's chief Baghdad editor, Wahhad Yacoub, emerged from the station and said the channel would cease broadcasting reports from Iraq until the matter is resolved.
He said the station would continue to report on Iraq from its headquarters in the city of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. But he protested the decision, saying the Saddam audiotape was received and broadcast from the station's headquarters -- not its Baghdad bureau.
Outraged Al-Arabiya correspondents accused the government of trying to stifle a free media.
"Opposing opinions should be respected," said correspondent Hadeer al-Rubei. "What was practiced during Saddam's rule is being practiced now."
New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists also condemned the government action.
"Statements from Saddam Hussein and the former Iraqi regime are inherently newsworthy, and news organizations have a right to cover them," said the group's Middle East program coordinator, Joel Campagna.
"This is the latest in a string of heavy-handed actions by the Iraqi Governing Council and U.S. and coalition authorities toward the media that make us apprehensive about the future of press freedoms in Iraq."
The Paris-based media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders called the closure a violation of freedom of the press and said it represented "methods ... that are contrary to the promises of setting up a democracy in Iraq."
"It's going down the wrong road," said Josh Friedman, head of international programs at Columbia University's School of Journalism in New York. "A free press is an essential component of democracy. If the free press doesn't always say what you want, that's something you have to live with."
In the audiotape purported to be Saddam, broadcast Nov. 16, the speaker told Iraqis that the "road of jihad [holy war] and resistance" is the only one to make the "armies of the unjust occupation leave our country." He criticized Iraqis who cooperate with coalition forces, calling them "stray dogs that walk alongside the caravan."
The CIA said the technical quality of the tape was too poor to reach any conclusions about the speaker's identity. President Bush dismissed it as propaganda.
Al-Arabiya has clashed with authorities before for its coverage of Iraq. In July, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said Al-Arabiya and another Arab news channel, Al-Jazeera, incited violence against American forces with slanted reports.
In September, the Governing Council temporarily banned Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera from entering government buildings and news conferences, accusing them of being aware of attacks on American troops before they occurred.
And last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called the two stations "violently anti-coalition" as he announced the planned launch of a U.S.-run satellite channel to compete with the wildly popular news stations.
Al-Arabiya correspondent Jawad Hattab said that in broadcasting the Saddam tape, the station was merely fulfilling "its fundamental journalistic duty, which is to broadcast excellent news that people expect."
Al-Arabiya was launched shortly before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The channel was started as a new venture of Middle East News, a Dubai-based production company that also runs the Middle East Broadcasting Center. It is owned by the brother-in-law of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd.