Iraq’s media regulatory body has suspended a TV show after it broadcast a parody interview on corruption in the Ministry of Defence, a move that has been strongly criticised as inviting more curbs on freedom of speech in the country.
In his With Mulla Talal programme on the privately owned UTV for Ramadan, anchor Ahmed Mulla Talal addressed a number of controversial issues in Iraq in a scene performed by an actor.
In Monday’s episode, actor Ayad Al Taie performed as an army officer in an interview with Mulla Talal. Al Taie told him how officers make money by allowing the soldier to go on leave in exchange for half of his salary.
The practice had been previously uncovered by the former Iraqi government of Haider Al Abadi during the fall of Mosul to ISIS in 2014, severely depleting the army's ranks.
Mulla Talal also shed light on how posts are sold after paying senior military leaders and politicians and how officers extract bribes from shopping centres, nightclubs, shops selling alcohol and checkpoints at the entrances of main cities.
The broadcast sparked instant uproar.
Iraq's Defence Ministry described the performance as “slander and offence” and threatened legal action against the anchor and the actor.
"What aired in that show is a clear offence to the military establishment and all its members," it said.
The ministry acknowledged corruption within its ranks.
"We are not defending the corrupt whose number is small. The current political situation in the country brought them to the military establishment," it said.
"The existence of corrupt elements in any civilian or military establishment doesn't mean the corruption is rampant in this establishment."
For its part, the National Communication and Media Commission demanded the removal of the segment of the show from all TV platforms.
It also demanded an apology from the TV production company to the Iraqi army.
“We will not apologise for revealing part of the truth that all know,” Mr Mulla Talal said on his Twitter account.“What I talked about is only the tip of the iceberg which is known to all and former prime ministers talked about it. We are moving from the stage of corruption and failure to the stage of corruption, failure, muzzling and dictatorship. The next is worse,” he said.“I will not apologise to the corrupt."
For his part, Al Taie also defended his role, which he said cast "light on a negative phenomenon and controversial figures in our country through performing a character every night”.
“In short, the message I want to deliver is that not only successive governments are blamed for the corruption and the damage, but also we: the journalist, officer, doctor and the tribal leader… etc.”
Al Taie said he targets only those “who look into their own interests other than the nation's”.
Iraq is considered one of the most corrupt countries in the world. It ranked joint 157th out of 180 nations on Transparency International’s 2021 corruption index.
Rampant corruption in the Iraqi army is widely regarded as one of the reasons why it melted away in the face of the ISIS advance during its 2014 onslaught that ended with the group controlling nearly one third of the country.
A government investigation conducted after the defeat found there were 50,000 false names on the army's payroll.
Known in the military as "ghost soldiers", they either did not exist or no longer reported for duty, however their salaries were still paid. It is thought that the payments were siphoned off by corrupt officers.