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US Withholds Criticism of Iraq's Al-Jazeera Closing - 2004-08-09

The United States Monday declined to criticize the Iraqi interim government's decision to close the Baghdad offices of the Arabic television channel al-Jazeera. The State Department says despite the 30-day closure, Iraq still has "vibrant" news media.

The United States has traditionally been a strong supporter of free news media around the world, but it has also accused al-Jazeera of false and inflammatory reporting about U.S. military operations in Iraq.

And the Bush administration is declining to criticize the weekend decision by Iraq's interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to shut down the Baghdad bureau of the Qatar-based television channel for 30 days.

At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said the United States had nothing to do with what he described as a "difficult" decision by Mr. Allawi.

He said the interim government in Baghdad has had to weigh its appreciation for a free press against what he said has been the "habit" of Iraqi insurgents to use al-Jazeera and other news media "to enhance their agenda."

Mr. Ereli said in general, the Iraqi media scene is "quite vibrant and dynamic," with print and broadcast outlets that frequently criticize the interim government.

He said U.S. officials are not about to "second-guess" Mr. Allawi, who said he had acted on the findings of a government commission that found al-Jazeera to be inciting violence and hatred.

"There are any number of outlets, both print as well as TV that voice dissent, but do it responsibly and do it in ways that don't endanger the lives of innocent people," he said. "There is a concern here in this case that that standard was not being met. And it is a difficult decision to second-guess, given the level of violence, given the level of unscrupulousness that is practiced by the terrorists."

The United States has repeatedly criticized al-Jazeera for carrying taped messages by Osama Bin Laden and other terrorist figures, and for what the State Department said in April were "false and tendentious" reports designed to make the situation in Iraq more tense, and more dangerous for U.S. troops.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has taken the matter up directly with officials of Qatar's government, which hosts, and has partially financed, the news network.

In response to U.S. and other criticism, al-Jazeera last month announced a code of ethics it said would ensure balanced reporting.

The Iraqi government's move against al-Jazeera has been condemned by media watchdog groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, which said Mr. Allawi should publicly release the commission study he said was behind the closure.

The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists said Monday the closure was an act of "unacceptable and illogical censorship" that casts a shadow over hopes for a new era of press freedom in Iraq.