The Communications and Media Commission in Baghdad reportedly suspended Reuters’ license and fined it roughly $21,000 in U.S. currency for a report on Thursday that accused the government of dramatically understating coronavirus cases in Iraq.
The Reuters report quoted sources in Iraq, including doctors and a Health Ministry official, who said the true number of cases runs into the “thousands,” while the government’s official count stood at just 772. The official total has been updated to 961 cases with 61 fatalities as of Monday morning.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in New York said the Iraqi government retaliated for the story by suspending Reuters’ license for at least three months, while Reuters representatives say they are “seeking clarification on the matter.”
“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. Reuters will continue to report on Iraq in a fair, independent and impartial way, as we do all around the world,” said a statement from the news agency.
The CPJ called on Baghdad to restore Reuters’ license immediately, noting that if the government “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.”
The Associated Press on Sunday quoted the Iraqi Communications and Media Commission claiming on its Facebook page that it tried to contact Reuters management in Baghdad to discuss the controversial report, but those calls went unanswered.
Middle East Monitor noted that several other governments in the region are suspected of dramatically under-reporting coronavirus cases, notably including Iran, Syria, and Egypt. Egypt expelled a reporter for the UK Guardian in March for a report similarly critical of Cairo for undercounting coronavirus cases.
According to the CPJ, Yemen, Oman, Jordan, Morocco, and Iran have banned newspapers for reporting on coronavirus cases. CPJ’s advice to reporters covering the pandemic includes warnings about governments and tech companies monitoring journalists with surveillance tools designed to track the spread of the virus, cybercriminals targeting reporters with electronic traps, state-sponsored “misinformation” campaigns, and the risks of “reporting on and/or from countries with authoritarian regimes.”