For months, Iraqi and U.S. officials have been trying to shut down a satellite television station that shows Iraqi insurgent videos and denounces the Shi'ite-led government of Iraq. But the station continues to be broadcast on Nilesat, a satellite provider run by the government of Egypt, one of Washington's closest allies in the Middle East. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Cairo.
The station is called Al-Zawraa, and it carries a continuous loop of video footage showing insurgent bomb and mortar attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq. The images, some of them extremely graphic, are captured on grainy, shaky video.
The Iraqi government has been trying to shut Al-Zawraa down for months. They closed its broadcast operation in Iraq in November, but instead of going off the air, the channel went underground. It continues to be broadcast through a Cairo-based company called Nilesat, which is majority-owned and operated by the Egyptian government.
Egypt is one of Washington's top allies in the Middle East, and the U.S. government has been pressuring Egypt to yank the station off the air. A State Department official told VOA that U.S. Embassy in Cairo has "raised concerns about al-Zawraa" with Egyptian officials in December, and asked that the station be removed from NileSat.
But it is still there.
Nilesat chief Amin Bassiouni says as far as he is concerned, it is simply a business decision, and Nilesat has to honor its contract with the station's owners.
"We have nothing to do with the content because our contract says, since you are paying for the lease you are controlling the satellite. We do not interfere with any content of any channel altogether," he said.
Bassiouni also says neither the Iraqi nor the Egyptian governments have formally requested to have the station removed. He says absent a direct order, his hands are tied.
"So if you want to talk, just talk to the Iraqi authorities or the Egyptian authorities to order us to stop it," he said. "Because if I dare to stop it now, I will be in the court tomorrow."
The issue of Al-Zawraa has become extremely sensitive in Egypt, and it seems that nobody really wants to talk about it.
The Egyptian information ministry has refused VOA's repeated requests for comment. The information ministry referred all questions to Nilesat, while Nilesat told VOA to talk to the information ministry. On Wednesday, VOA was finally granted a brief telephone interview with Nilesat chief Bassiouni after two weeks of trying.
The director of the television journalism program at the American University in Cairo, Lawrence Pintak, has been researching the station since late last year.
"The official line is that this is just business - Nilesat's a business and they have a contract with these guys and we are transmitting. The reality, as anyone who knows Egyptian media [knows], that the government could pull the plug in an instant, " he said.
The question that many analysts are asking is why the Egyptian government has not done so. One theory is that it reflects the chilling of relations between Egypt and the United States, and some analysts suggest Cairo is trying to distance itself from Washington. Another theory is that there is a sectarian motive, connected to Egypt's distrust of the Shi'ite-led government of Iraq and concern over the rising influence of Iran in the region.
Nilesat says business is business, and it carries other channels that the Egyptian government does not like, including Al Jazeera, whose journalists have been repeatedly arrested or harassed. Pintak says there are limits what Nilesat is willing to carry, and those limits generally reflect the government's stance.
"You do not see a Muslim Brotherhood television station on Nilesat. You do not see the Shi'ite militant group that is headed by Moqtada al-Sadr on Nilesat," he noted. "You do see this Sunni insurgent group on Nilesat."
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak triggered outrage in Iraq last year when he said Shi'ite Iraqis are likely to be more loyal to Iran than to their own country.
On the station, some video footage of insurgent attacks is accompanied by music praising the Sunni insurgency. Announcers in military fatigues read statements condemning the Shi'ite-led Iraqi government and the Iraqi militia known as the Mahdi Army, led by Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. A woman, whose face is completely covered by a red-and-white keffiyeh, vows that the insurgency will "avenge every martyr."
Although the channel is clearly affiliated with the insurgency, Pintak says U.S. efforts to shut it down do raise some questions about freedom of expression.
"Clearly, there is an inherent contradiction in the United States government, which espouses democracy and a free press, demanding that, and they are demanding behind the scenes, that this channel be killed, that the plug be pulled," he said. "There is also an irony that the Egyptian government, which has thousands if not tens-of-thousands of people who they describe as Islamist extremists in prison, and they are hosting a channel that is the voice and the face of the most militant of Sunni extremists in Iraq."
Al-Zawraa is owned by former Iraqi lawmaker Mishan al-Jibouri, who fled to Syria after being charged with corruption and embezzlement.
Jibouri told the Christian Science Monitor newspaper recently that he has signed contracts with two other satellite providers to continue broadcasting the station even if Nilesat pulls it off the air.