BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq must drop its new rules that impose harsh penalties on television stations for vaguely defined charges of incitement, said a U.S.-based human rights group.
Human Rights Watch said the guidelines for broadcast media in Iraq are too vague and give the Iraqi Communications and Media Commission "unfettered power to halt broadcast transmissions, close offices, seize equipment, revoke licenses, and levy fines on broadcasters," it said in a letter.
The commission was established by the now-defunct Coalition Provisional Authority that took control of Iraq immediately after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and ouster of former president Saddam Hussein. It is touted as an independent regulatory agency, but its directors are appointed by the Iraqi government.
The new guidelines set vague standards for broadcasters to follow or face having their licenses revoked after a single offense. There is only a limited appeals process.
In one example, the commission prohibits broadcast reports that cause "incitement of sectarianism." It is unclear, however, whether merely covering stories or broadcasting pictures of sectarian violence could be defined as fueling tensions. The rules also warn against broadcasting statements of groups that advocate terrorism _ as most claims of responsibility for attacks routinely do.
"These broadcast regulations are a real setback for media freedom in Iraq," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Not only do the regulations give this agency enormous power to shut down broadcasters for minor and first-time transgressions, but they place the lives of Iraqi journalists at greater risk."
Telephone calls to the commission's headquarters Monday were unanswered.
Human Rights Watch also raised concerns about a proposed regulation that would have required media outlets to submit names of all staff to the quasi-governmental commission, saying that doing so could place their lives in danger. That plan, however, appears to have been eliminated from the final guidelines.
At least 141 journalists and another 43 media support staffers have been killed in Iraq since 2003, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Iraq is "the most dangerous place in the world for journalists in six of the past seven years," Human Rights Watch concluded.