The council passed a resolution to restrict Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya from entering government offices and covering official news conferences for at least two weeks.
“Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya will temporarily be excluded from any coverage of Governing Council activities or official press conferences, and correspondents of the two channels will not be allowed to enter ministries or government offices for two weeks,” the council said in a statement released Tuesday night.
Iraqi officials accused Al-Jazeera, the satellite news channel based in Qatar, and Al-Arabiya, based in the United Arab Emirates, of promoting sectarian violence and encouraging attacks against U.S. soldiers and Iraqis who cooperate with coalition forces.
“The two channels were banned because they have invested the most in inciting violence,” Entifadh Qanbar, a spokesman for Ahmed Chalabi, the council’s current president, told news agencies Tuesday night.
The council decided the stations had violated the “media-conduct rules,” which were released for the first time in Tuesday’s resolution.
In the resolution, the council also advised other media organizations that they could be restricted or fined without prior notice for any future infractions of the conduct rules.
The council’s new rules include a ban on broadcasting statements inciting violence or disorder, fomenting resistance to the U.S.-led occupying forces, or any reporting that suggests the return of the ousted Baath Party. The council said breaches of the rules posed a risk to democracy and the stability of Iraq.
Qanbar said the resolution was “a positive step to protect the Iraqi people from the poisons being broadcast by the channels.”
“We will not let them broadcast footage of U.S. soldiers being ripped apart,” Qanbar said. “We hope other channels will draw a lesson from this decision.”
Both networks, meanwhile, have defended their reporting in Iraq and condemned the council’s move as a violation of press freedom.
Al-Jazeera spokesperson Jihad Balout said his organization was “dismayed at this decision.”
“We certainly believe that there are several victims to the decision, firstly the truth, because it will be missing … and the second one is the freedom of the press.” Balout said in an interview on CNN.
“At the end of the day, we are not in the business of censoring news and information, especially from our viewers. I think it’s incumbent on us to give our viewers out there as full a picture as possible, and as balanced [a] picture as possible and as comprehensive as possible,” Balout added.
Press advocacy groups, including the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), denounced the governing council’s move as an attack on journalistic freedom.
“CPJ finds these sanctions deeply troubling,” CPJ Middle East Program Coordinator Joel Campagna said in a prepared statement. “Penalizing media outlets sets a poor precedent and raises serious questions about how Iraqi authorities will handle the broadcast or publication of negative news. The Governing Council should encourage open media.”
Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya have broadcasted the purported voice of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein calling for Iraqis to fight occupying forces and of militant groups, some of which have threatened to murder council members. U.S. military officials have criticized the two Arabic-language TV stations for their allegedly gratuitous coverage of attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq.
In a separate event Tuesday, U.S. soldiers handcuffed and detained an Associated Press photographer and driver, the AP reported.
U.S. soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 70th Armored Regiment, 1st Armored Division handcuffed photographer Karim Kadim and driver Mohammed Abbas, both Iraqi journalists for the AP, near Abu Ghraib, on the outskirts of Baghdad. Kadim said they were held at gunpoint for three hours in temperatures of 110 degrees, despite their repeated attempts to explain they were reporters.
“We identified ourselves from the very beginning as press, even before we approached the troops,” Kadim told the AP. “I was asked not to take any pictures and I didn’t. We were told to leave and we walked away, and then one of them shouted at us to come back.”
“We were searched, and they took away all my camera gear. Then our hands were tied behind our backs, first with rope, and then with plastic handcuffs,” Kadim said.
Abbas said the soldiers accused them of being involved in the insurgent attacks on U.S. troops.
The two were brought to a U.S. base, where Major Eric Wick apologized. Wick also called the AP office in Baghdad and said the incident “was a misunderstanding on our part.”