Iraq media regulator to fine broadcasters

07 March 2011

Billions lost to frequency squatters

Communications timeline

2003: Saddam regime comes to end

2004: CMC established by interim government

2006: Tendering process begins for 15-year national mobile licences

2009: CMC fines all three mobile operators $20m each for poor services

2011: CMC fines Zain Iraq $262m for issuing unapproved SIM cards

Iraq’s Communication and Media Commission (CMC) says it will fine all television and satellite channels that have been broadcasting to Iraq since 2003. This will include Qatar’s Al-Jazeera and Saudi Arabia’s MBC and Al-Arabiya.

None of the broadcasters have gained permission to use the spectrums and microwave links, according to commissioner Ahmed Alomary. Currently about 160 channels are under review. “The fines could spiral to billions of dollars, but we are thinking of a settlement,” says Alomary.

This is the latest fine to be issued by the regulator, which has had little success in receiving payments from the country’s mobile operators.

“The CMC’s decision to fine is ridiculous. They do not have the technical equipment or the resources to manage the spectrum. There are many frequency squatters in Iraq. Once the CMC finds out about them, it sends a letter issuing a fine, but no-one follows up. The radio stations and television channels simply move onto another frequency,” says a industry analyst.

Spectrum frequencies and the right to broadcast are supposed to be priced, but the issue was bypassed due to the lack of regulations in 2003 after Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled. The CMC was only established in 2004 and has been weakened over the years with in-house disagreements and cases of corruption.

Most of the fines it has issued since its inception have turned out to be empty threats since it has no mechanism in place to enforce them. The regulatory body is now lobbying Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to leverage some power. Various independent regulators including the Elections Commission and the Human Rights Commission and the Supreme Rights Council in Iraq have been moved under direct executive control under Opinion 88.

 “While this is not a ruling, the move is deeply concerning. To control access to information and impose arbitrary fines is political suicide in light of regional demands for transparency,” says Jacky Sutton, regional director for US-based non-government organisation Irex.

“All stakeholders must understand that transparency is not an option, it is a reality,” she says.

Al-Jazeera refused to comment.

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