Iraq suspends US-funded broadcaster Al Hurra over graft investigation

BAGHDAD, Sept 2 (Reuters) - Iraq has suspended the licence of a U.S.-government funded broadcaster after it ran an investigation alleging corruption within the country's religious institutions.

The country's media regulator on Monday shut down the local offices of Al Hurra television - a broadcaster funded by the U.S. Agency for Global Media - for three months, accusing the network of bias and defamation in their report.

"The program failed to uphold the principles of media professionalism," a statement from the Communications and Media Commission (CMC) said, accusing the reporters of using anonymous sources to defame and to cause moral injury.

The investigative report, which aired last week, alleged corruption within the Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim endowments - state bodies that administer religious sites and real estate - including foundations linked to Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

The Sunni endowment denied the allegations in the report and said they would take legal steps against the channel. The Shi'ite endowment could not immediately be reached for comment.

In addition to the three-month suspension, Al Hurra must stop all activities until "they correct their position" and must issue a formal apology, the CMC decision said.

Al Hurra said it would issue a statement shortly.

Iraq is currently ranked near the bottom of Reporters Without Borders' (RSF) media freedom index. It owes its current ranking of 156 out of 180 countries to routine attacks, arbitrary detentions and intimidation of journalists by militias and pro-government groups, according to RSF.

"Iraq still has no law on access to state-held information," RSF says on its website. "Investigative reporting on corruption or embezzlement exposes journalists to serious threats."

Neither the U.S. Department of State nor the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad oversees the content of Al Hurra's programming, Embassy Spokesperson Pedro Martin said.

"Alhurra's mission is to deliver accurate and objective information on the region, American policies and Americana," he said. "The Government of Iraq has the right to question Al Hurra on any reporting that is perceived to be false or unprofessional and has the right to respond with their position."

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein, Ahmed Rasheed and Raya Jalabi in Baghdad, Writing by Raya Jalabi, Editing by William Maclean)

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