Iraq's 'PBS' Accused of Sectarian Slant ; Shiite Control of State-Funded TV Has Critics Worried about the Independence of Iraq's Fledgling Free Press

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In the press office of Iraq's Kurdish President Jalal Talibani, a half-dozen staffers monitor CNN, Saudi-financed Al Arabiya, and the local news channel Al Iraqiya, which is state funded, but independent - in theory.

Nearly 50 percent of Iraqis tune into Al Iraqiya, so Mr. Talibani's media adviser, Hiwa Osman, sees to it that his staff does, too.

Mr. Osman, however, has few kind words for the country's leading network, founded in 2003 by the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). "It's supposed to be a public service broadcaster ... they should be providing a service for all the people, but they are providing a service only for certain people in government," he says.

Like much of the government in the new Iraq, Al Iraqiya is dominated by Shiites, and critics like Osman say that Iraq's version of America's Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) has simply become a propaganda tool for the country's leading Shiite politicians. Al Iraqiya was meant to stand as a model for a burgeoning independent press, but seems to have instead become one more political spoil for its competing factions.

It's not the only sign that Iraq's independent media is in jeopardy. Last week a journalist in the Kurdish city of Arbil was sentenced to 30 years in prison for articles he wrote critical of Kurdish regional president Masoud Barzani.

In the southern city of Kut, two other journalists have been charged with defaming police and the judiciary after criticizing provincial officials in a local paper. If convicted, they face 10 years in prison and heavy fines. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has denounced their prosecution, calling it "part of a larger pattern of judicial harassment" in Iraq.

"Iraqi independent media is under attack, and this casts doubt on Iraq's democratic project," says Ibrahim al-Sragey, director of the Iraqi Organization to Protect Journalists' Rights.

Since the Dec. 15 parliamentary election, Iraq's political factions have been embroiled in negotiations to form a government that includes the country's Sunni Arabs, Shiites, and Kurds. In the coming weeks, these factions will battle over key issues, such as control of government ministries and equitable distribution of the country's resources.

But another important battle has been brewing for much of the past year: the fight for control of Al Iraqiya - which according to a recent Ipsos Stat poll is Iraq's most watched network - and its umbrella company, the Iraqi Media Network (IMN).

In addition to controlling Iraq's most-watched television station, IMN owns the country's leading daily newspaper, Al Sabbah, and a popular radio station. It was meant to be an independent media company protected from the country's political wrangling by a nine person board of governors.

But many Iraqis say that hasn't happened. They view the IMN instead as one more sectarian battlefield in an increasingly divided country.

"The Iraqi Media Network is another factor that is helping to turn Iraqi society into a sectarian society," says Salah Mulek, a secular Sunni politician whose electoral list is likely to win 10 seats in the coming parliament. …


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