Saturday, May 05, 2012

deadly radio waves: just another excuse to curtail iraqi media freedoms?

deadly radio waves: just another excuse to curtail iraqi media freedoms?

Iraq’s Ministry of the Environment wants to shut down media outlets with transmitters that they say endanger public health. Local journalists are refusing, saying it’s just another cunning way of curtailing media freedoms in Iraq.

Earlier in April, Iraq’s Ministry of the Environment announced that it would shortly be forcing any media businesses to remove broadcasting equipment that could endanger the health of Iraqi citizens. The Ministry said that if the various media outlets do not comply with the directive, they may well be closed down.

However local media suspect that the Ministry’s motives are far from pure; they say this is the Iraqi government’s way of censoring, and even closing down, media outlets that could present opposition opinions or criticise the government.

One radio station, Radio Shafaq, reported it had received a written warning from the Ministry of Environment. It said that if Radio Shafaq, which is the only Kurdish-language station broadcasting out of Baghdad, didn’t remove it’s transmitters from populated areas then it would be closed down. And Radio Shafaq is not the only victim of the Ministry of the Environment.

“Transmission devices can significantly affect human health,” Kamal Hussein, Deputy Minister of the Environment told NIQASH. And this week, two further letters would be sent to the media organisations, Al Furat, a radio and television station, and Biladi, a television channel, he said. “We will also send letters to all other offending stations, urging them to move their offices from residential areas,” Hussein continued.  

The local media was not pleased; several Iraqi journalists and the heads of several media organizations protested. They said that the letters were not what they seemed and that they were concerned that the state’s issue with radiation and transmitters had more to do with putting further restrictions on local media outlets.

“What the Environment Ministry is doing is part of a plan and it is a plan aimed at ending the freedom of expression in this country – methodically and cunningly,” journalist Idris Jawad, who works for the TV station Al Sumariya, told NIQASH. “They’ve already closed the Al Sharqiya and Al Baghdadiyah television stations. Now they’re trying to restrict the work of international broadcasters.”

The government closed Al Sharqiya in late 2007, saying the station – which is now broadcasting from outside of Iraq – was inciting sectarian hatred. It closed Al Baghdadiyah in April this year saying it was posing a threat to national security. Both of the channels were well known for their criticism of the current government, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The Ministry of the Environment denied its position had anything at all to do with circumventing freedom of expression. “The ministry’s mission is to preserve the environment and human health,” Hussein insisted. “The impact of the transmission devices will eventually be felt.”

“In fact,” Hussein continued, “we made this decision in conjunction with the Ministry of Health.”  He explained that a committee had been formed to discuss this decision and it had included representatives from the Ministry of Health and communications branches. All of these had agreed with the decision to send out the warning letters so there was no need to re-consult with the Health Ministry. 

In terms of medical facts and figures on the topic, there has been a lot of research on the transmissions that radio and television broadcasting equipment produce.

And while it is true that radio and television aerials exude radiofrequency electromagnetic fields at high frequencies and that these do have an effect on the human body, a lot of the research about long term dangers remains inconclusive, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

“There is no doubt that short-term exposure to very high levels of electromagnetic fields can be harmful to health. Current public concern focuses on possible long-term health effects caused by exposure to electromagnetic fields at levels below those required to trigger acute biological responses,” a WHO fact sheet on transmissions says.

How much of an electromagnetic field a television or radio aerial produces and how high the frequency of that field depends very much on the type of aerial and the kind of transmission (for example, whether it’s AM or FM radio, or satellite television).

Nonetheless the WHO says that the ordinary public should not be exposed to these transmissions on a regular basis – that is, they shouldn’t be near the aerials. And often aerials are on top of high buildings or in restricted areas.

And in many ways, the WHO’s policies on this issue – the result of hundreds of thousands of pieces of research – supports what the Iraqi Ministry of the Environment is saying.

“International guidelines and national safety standards for electromagnetic fields are developed on the basis of the current scientific knowledge,” the WHO explains. “To compensate uncertainties in knowledge, large safety factors are incorporated into the exposure limits.”

However, as many of the media outlets who had received the warning letters from the Ministry of the Environment said, their transmitting devices were already located in less populous parts of Baghdad, or in restricted areas.

Tow of these were Al-Furat and Biladi, both satellite TV stations, with the former funded by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, one of the most important political organizations representing the interests of Iraq’s Shiite Muslims, and the latter owned by former Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari, also a Shiite Muslim. Officially the two parties that own the stations are allies of the current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But unofficially they provide strong competition for al-Maliki when it comes to wooing the Shiite Muslim electorate.

But as the director of Al Furat TV, Abbas al-Issawi, told NIQASH, “our transmitters are located on non-residential land in the Karrada neighbourhood of Baghdad”.

Moving the transmission equipment would be time consuming and costly, al-Issawi noted, possibly adding up to millions and he suggested that the Iraqi government help foot the bill. 

Further suspicions were aroused because Afaq TV, a channel closely affiliated to the Prime Minister’s own political party, the Dawa party, has not received such a letter. Then again the station’s offices are located near Baghdad’s international airport.

The Ministry of the Environment didn’t indicate whether it would send the same warnings to the Iraqiya TV channel either – Iraqiya is the semi-official governmental channel.

“This is because we have yet to decide whether Iraqiya is violating environmental guidelines or not,” Hussein explained.  

So, although the broadcasters’ equipment may well be far enough away from the general public, the current controversy seems to be more about which stations are being targeted first.

Members of the press corps are not the only critics expressing scepticism about the Ministry of Environment’s moves. The parliamentary committee on human rights suggested the warnings might be part of “a government agenda to restrict press freedoms and narrow liberties.”

“These steps - as taken by the Environment Ministry - are not acceptable at all,” MP Ashwaq al-Jaff, a committee member, told NIQASH. “We need to discuss this issue in Parliament.”

The other evidence for media suspicions is circumstantial. Current and past governments of Iraq don’t have a particularly good reputation for their treatment of, and respect for, local media.

For the years 2011-2012 the international press freedom advocacy organisation, Reporters Without Borders, ranked Iraq 152nd out of a total of 179 countries on their Press Freedom Index. This was lower than the previous year when Iraq had been placed 133rd out of 178.

Further evidence comes in the form of a letter sent to media outlets by the Ministry of the Interior in early April. In the letter the Ministry says media outlets must reveal their sources or be threatened with a law suit, which could result in the imprisonment of journalists.

“So the Interior Ministry threatens journalists with imprisonment if they do not reveal their sources of information,” Sinan Adnan, a journalist for the local Aka News Agency, commented to NIQASH. “And the Environment Ministry closes media outlets under the pretext of environmental protection. Who knows what else other government ministries have planned in this campaign against the freedom of expression in Iraq?”

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