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.
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 CPJ it stood by its story. The news agency said it had "not received any notification from Iraqi authorities regarding the license and was seeking clarification on the matter."
Reuters did not respond to a request for commentary in time for publication.
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.