An Iraqi public hospital specialised doctor takes samples from Iraqi citizens in Baghdad's suburb of Sadr City on April 2, 2020…
An Iraqi public hospital specialized doctor takes samples from Iraqi citizens in Baghdad's suburb of Sadr City as part of precautions against the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), April 2, 2020.

An international press watchdog says Iraqi officials have suspended Reuters news agency's license for three months after the British wire service reported that confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country exceeded official statistics.

According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Baghdad's Communications and Media Commission on Thursday barred the outlet and fined it 25 million Iraqi dinars ($21,000) the same day the report published.

CPJ says the media regulator issued a statement accusing Reuters of "endangering public safety and hindering the government's efforts to prevent the spread of the virus." The regulator called on Reuters to issue a public apology.

According to the report Thursday by Reuters, Iraq has thousands of confirmed COVID-19 cases, many times more than the 772 it has publicly reported, according to three doctors closely involved in the testing process, a health ministry official and a senior political official. 

A street vendor rides his bicycle past closed shops in a nearly empty popular market during a curfew to help fight the spread of the coronavirus in the eastern suburb of Baghdad, Iraq, April 3, 2020.

The Reuters report alleged that Baghdad had concealed information from the public, which, according to Al Jazeera, drew sharp rebukes from the country's Health Ministry officials.

"It's incorrect information," Iraqi Health Ministry spokesperson Saif al-Badr texted Reuters, Al Jazeera reported.

Reuters told VOA it stands by its story.

“We have not received notification from any Iraqi authorities regarding our license and are currently seeking clarification on the matter," a spokesperson said.

"We stand by our story of April 2, which was based on multiple, well-placed medical and political sources, and also fully represented the position of the Iraqi health ministry," they said. "Reuters will continue to report on Iraq in a fair, independent and impartial way, as we do all around the world.” 

CPJ's Middle East and North Africa representative, Ignacio Miguel Delgado, called on Iraqi officials to reinstate the news outlet's license.

"If Iraq's media regulator continues to suspend media outlets critical of the authorities, soon there won't be any outlet left in Iraq at a time when the flow of news is vital to contain the spread of the COVID-19 disease," Delgado said.

The World Health Organization recently warned that Iraq, which enforced a curfew and restricted travel in mid-March, may see in sharp increase in infections.

Neighboring Iran has the highest number of confirmed cases in the Middle East.

Like numerous Middle Eastern countries, Iraq recently suspended distribution of print newspapers and periodicals in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19.

U.N. health officials recently commended Iraqi authorities for "their tireless work" in combating the disease but cautioned that "no amount of government action can succeed without the active involvement of the entire population."

The U.N. news agency report stated that prominent clerics and government officials in Iraq have been discouraging people from gathering in large groups.

Iraq officials did not respond to requests for commentary in time for publication.