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4 Sep, 2019 01:01

‘Hostile news policy’: US-funded Arabic channel exposé unites Iraqi Sunni & Shia v foreign meddling

‘Hostile news policy’: US-funded Arabic channel exposé unites Iraqi Sunni & Shia v foreign meddling

Iraq’s sectarian political scene is having a rare moment of unity, driven by an unlikely culprit. Recent reporting by a US-funded Middle Eastern news outlet has piqued claims of American meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs.

Alhurra, a US-based and -funded television channel that broadcasts to the Arab world, has landed in hot water with Iraq’s official media watchdog, as well as religious and political leaders, over a report alleging misuse of government funds among Sunni and Shia officials.

Rivals united in outrage

In a 12-minute documentary broadcast this weekend – titled “The Holy Persons of Sacred Corruption in Iraq” – Alhurra reported that Iraqi political figures were personally benefiting from the administration of religious sites and real estate deals involving state funds. The report also posited that Iraq’s highest religious authorities were involved in the corruption, including the Sunni Grand Mufti, Sheikh Mahdi al-Sumaidaie, as well as Shia leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Responding to the exposé on Monday, Iraq’s media watchdog, the Communication and Media Commission (CMC), suspended Alhurra’s operations for three months, arguing the report “caused angry reactions in Iraqi public opinion, both official and popular,” and that the outlet sought to “undermine the position” of “highly respected” institutions.

The CMC also slammed Alhurra for reporting “accusations ... as credible facts without corroboration from other impartial sources,” and threatened “a tougher punishment” if the “offense is repeated.”

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Alhurra stood by its work in a statement on Monday, insisting the report was “fair, balanced and professional,” and added that individuals named in the report were given a chance to respond, “which they declined.”

But religious and political figures both Sunni and Shia lashed out at Alhurra, with some arguing the outlet’s reporting reflects American hostility toward Iraq.

Head of the powerful Shia militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Qais al-Khazali, said the Alhurra piece is “a dangerous indication of US foreign policy,” while the largely Shia paramilitary umbrella group Hashd al-Shaabi slammed the outlet for “a hostile news policy,” according to the Lebanese Daily Star.

Parliamentary speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi, who belongs to the Sunni Al-Hal political alliance, also accused the outlet of “abusing state and religious intuitions without checking for accuracy or facts,” according to the National.

Though none of the high profile figures presented any substantial factual challenge to Alhurra’s reporting, this is not the first time the outlet has come under scrutiny.

Perception mismanagement

Founded in 2004 by the US government to combat negative images of the United States in the Middle East, Alhurra has more often been a disaster of mismanagement than a slick propaganda outfit. A project of the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), Alhurra survives on over $112 million in US government funding annually.

The USAGM – which has been described as the US propaganda arm – oversees a number of American-backed media projects, including several outlets intended for exclusive foreign consumption, such as Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and Radio y Televisión Martí, which transmits in Spanish to Cuba. Until 2013, many of those stations were forbidden from broadcasting within the United States in order to protect US citizens from government disinformation disseminated abroad.

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A joint report by 60 Minutes and ProPublica in 2008 found that American taxpayers had already dropped nearly $500 million propping up Alhurra in its first four years of operation, despite the fact that the outlet’s “reporters and commentators operate with little oversight.”

Alhurra’s first president, Brian Conniff, did not speak a word of Arabic – and therefore could not understand what his own agency was broadcasting – and had no prior experience in journalism, working previously as a government auditor. Conniff was finally replaced in 2017 by former American diplomat Alberto Fernandez, who reportedly does speak the language.

Before taking the job, Fernandez slammed Alhurra for putting “radical Shi’a Islamists” on its payroll, many of them not even Iraqi, and noted the US Embassy in Baghdad complained about the outlet year after year.

The joint investigation also found that Alhurra consisted of “largely foreign staff with little knowledge of the country whose values and policies they were hired to promote,” even as the US federal government continued to pour millions into its coffers. Starting with a $67 million budget in 2004, by 2009 the outlet was taking in $112 million, which it continues to receive every year, despite ongoing mismanagement.

Whether a sophisticated media shop designed to advance US interests in the Middle East, or a poorly-functioning, over-funded wreck of a government program, Alhurra, much like the USAGM’s other foreign media projects, is stirring up trouble abroad. Perhaps it is serving its purpose after all.

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