Protesters storm offices of Iraqi TV channel that broadcast music during Islamic holy day of Ashura
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On August 31, a group of men set fire to the Baghdad headquarters of Dijlah--a media group of news and entertainment TV channels. The Dijlah music channel had continued its usual programming in the days leading up to the holy day of Ashura, an important day of mourning for Iraq’s Shiite Muslim population. Our Observer, a reporter working for the Dijlah news channel, said that this attack is about more than just religion.
On August 20, Muslims celebrated the Hijrah (Prophet Muhammad’s journey from Mecca to Medina in the year 622 AD), which also marks the start to al-Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar
This holy month is particularly significant for Shiite Muslims. In the year 680, Iman Hussein Ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed and an important figure in Shia Islam, was murdered in Kerballa, Iraq along with members of his family. The day he was martyred is known as Ashura and it marks the start to a somber, 40-day period of mourning for Shia Muslims. Ashura is always on the tenth day of the month of al-Muharram (which fell on August 30 this year). Many people travel to Kerbala to see his tomb during this time.
On August 30, Baghdad’s public prosecutor ordered the arrest of the president of the Dijlah media group because the group’s music channel had continued to broadcast during the ten days of al-Muharram that lead up to Ashura. This time is intended to be a period of mourning for Imam Hussein. Even though there is no law banning media outlets from broadcasting music at this time, most outlets only broadcast poems, prayers and lectures on religion.
أمر قبض فوري بحق مالك #قناة_دجلة_الفضائية pic.twitter.com/ldegb99Xehجاسم الشمري/ كاتب وصحفي (@dr_jasemj67) August 31, 2020
The next day, civilians stormed the offices of Dijlah, located in the centre of Baghdad, setting fire to the buildings and smashing equipment. Videos of the protest march to Dijlah’s headquarters and the attack on the buildings circulated widely on social media. They show a giant fire burning in the Dijlah building.
Some of the photos and videos posted online by the assaillants show them carrying flags marked with Shiite prayers mourning the death of Iman Hussein. Some of the protestors also spraypainted these prayers on the outer walls of the building.
“Our equipment was ransacked under the watch of security forces”Bashir Al Kubaisi is a journalist and producer at Dijlah. He told the FRANCE 24 Observers team about what happened the day of the attack:
The day before Ashura began, we noticed that there was a violent campaign against Dijlah on social media. Our music channel “Dijlah Tarab” [which translates to “Dijlah music”] promotes the Iraqi musical tradition. Because it only broadcasts music, we continued our musical program as normal during al-Muharram. The campaign against us targeted our entire group, including the news channel where I work even though we had adapted our normal programming for the holy month and created several special programs. This “online army” didn’t differentiate between the two channels and continued to hurl insults at Dijlah Tarab.
At 4:30pm on August 31, a group of civilians forced their way into our offices on Avicenne Street in Baghdad. There were security forces on hand in front of the buildings. There were also governmental vehicles about 40 or 50 metres from there. Even though they were there, they didn’t stop the group from entering by force. It was a clear violation of private property. I don’t think that the Iraqi constitution permits this kind of violence.
Most of our equipment was destroyed, as security forces looked on. Photos and videos taken at the scene document both their presence and their failure to act.
Our Observer sent us this video, which was filmed on August 31. It shows federal police officers, connected to the ministry of the interior, standing by as assailants attacked Dijlah’s offices.
On August 30, the channel’s management published a statement apologising for violating Ashura. It stopped broadcasting the music channel the same day. But the campaign against Dijlah only intensified in spite of it. Those of us working at the channel received both public and private threats.
What disappointed us the most is that the authorities were already aware of this violent campaign against our media outlet and the death threats against employees, but they didn’t do anything about it. Even worse, the police didn’t stop the assaillants from entering the building and instead just watched as the mob ransacked our building. None of the people who threatened us were arrested or even brought in for questioning.
“Our media outlet has supported the October revolution since the very beginning and we paid the price.”
There is no mention of religion in our editorial guidelines and we are committed to combating sectarian conflicts in Iraq. It’s a shame that preachers and political parties are taking advantage of an error in programming to revive the sectarian tensions that are already a huge problem in our country.
This video, filmed by members of the group that attacked the Dijlah headquarters, shows protesters preventing fire trucks from accessing the burning offices of the TV channel. “Go back where you came from,” they cry. The video shows at least one police officer ordering the fire trucks to turn back.
It’s important to highlight that Abu Nouwas Street [Where Dijlah’s offices are located] is very close to the government buildings and the “Green Zone” where there are a lot of foreign embassies [The Green Zone is a high security enclave within the Iraqi capital that was established in 2003 after a series of attacks following the end of the second Gulf War].
In my opinion, the Iraqi government isn’t strong enough to combat the religious movements and political parties that the October Revolution protested against [Protests against government corruption broke out in Iraq in October 2019 and continue even today.]
Even though protestors outside Dijlah's offices didn’t associate themselves with a particular political party or movement, some analysts have linked these attacks to the followers of Moqtada Sadr, a cleric who leads the Sadrist Movement, a Shiite conservative political party. The movement called for a boycott of Dijlah the day of the attack.
In February 2019, people with close links to this movement surrounded Dijlah’s offices after they claimed that the news channel made defamatory statements against Moqtada Sadr.
When a media outlet is attacked in this way, it confirms that Iraq is governed by the law of the jungle. I am not saying that just because of the most recent attack on the media outlet where I work. Those of us working for Dijlah are extremely frustrated and disappointed. The press is an essential component for change. This attack is a message. There is a real problem within the government. The Iraqi judicial system should have the final word on this, but this same judicial system released an arrest warrant for Dijlah’s president.
This isn’t the first time we’ve been targeted. In October 2019, armed men set fire to our headquarters because our channel supported the protestors. One of our journalists, Ahmad Abdassamad, was killed during a crackdown on protesters in Bassora.
In a statement published on the evening of August 31, the Iraqi interior ministry condemned the attack on Dijlah’s headquarters, announcing that the ministry would take “legal action compatible with its constitutional prerogatives”.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team reached out to the Iraqi Interior Minister, but didn’t get a response. We will update this page if we receive one.
Article by Fatma Ben Hamad.