Shermeen Yousif
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Iraq’s new online content regulation is a big step backward

Freedom of expression is a basic human right, even when offensive, and blocking people from opining on social media violates it
A local Iraqi boy takes photographs with a cell phone during an opening ceremony for a new vocational school facility in the Shawra Wa Um Jidir area of eastern Baghdad, Iraq on June 11, 2022. (DVIDSHUB, via Wikimedia Commons)
A local Iraqi boy takes photographs with a cell phone during an opening ceremony for a new vocational school facility in the Shawra Wa Um Jidir area of eastern Baghdad, Iraq on June 11, 2022. (DVIDSHUB, via Wikimedia Commons)

After only a few months of its formation, starting this year, the new Iraqi government started an alarming campaign to regulate online content and restrict “indecent or immoral content,” raising significant concerns among activists and human rights organizations. The campaign has been criticized for its potential to impede free speech and access to information.

It is widely believed by many that the actions taken by the prime minister, Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani, to monitor indecent content on social media are an intentional effort to divert public attention from the pressing concerns of the country, such as the worsening economic conditions, inflation, and the volatility of the Iraqi currency. This diversionary tactic is viewed as an attempt to shift the focus of the public discourse away from these critical issues that affect the well-being of the populace and towards a less consequential matter.

Since January, the Ministry of Interior has established a specialized committee to oversee and regulate online content that may be deemed indecent or inappropriate for public consumption. This initiative is in line with the government’s efforts to extend its campaign against social media activists, influencers, and content creators who propagate material that could be considered detrimental to the social and cultural values of Iraqi society. This government’s clampdown on online activities has led to the detention and arrest of numerous individuals who have been vocal in their opinions and critical of the government’s policies.

On March 3, 2023, Amnesty released a joint statement titled “Iraqi Authorities Must Cease Chilling Crackdown on Free Speech.” As of February 13, a statement released by the Ministry of Interior reveals that an excess of 96,000 complaints were received on the Balgeh platform — the platform to report “indecent content.” According to reports, the judge at the Al-Karkh court indicated that the individuals prosecuted were charged under Article 403 of the Iraqi Penal Code, which criminalizes the dissemination of published material that is perceived to “violate public integrity or decency.” Additionally, sources suggest that some of the prosecuted individuals were known for creating content that pertained to music and comedy. The judge disclosed that the legal action was instigated based on complaints submitted to a newly established committee set up by the Ministry of Interior to monitor online content deemed to be “indecent/immoral,” in addition to complaints received via the Balegh platform.

The Ambiguity of the Regulation

One of the primary issues with the regulation is its broad and ambiguous provisions. The law does not clearly define what constitutes “harmful” content, leaving significant room for interpretation and potential abuse of power by those responsible for enforcing the law. The restrictions imposed on online content lack transparency and tend to serve the government’s agenda, thereby running counter to the principles enshrined in the Iraqi constitution. This lack of transparency is particularly concerning given the law’s excessive penalties for individuals found to have violated its provisions. These penalties include fines and imprisonment, which may have a chilling effect on free speech, particularly for journalists and activists who rely on online platforms to express dissenting opinions.

Various organizations have raised apprehensions that the Ministry of Interior committee and platform may have been employed to suppress lawful and safeguarded expressions of peaceful speech because of the breadth and expansiveness of their mandate. These groups are concerned that individuals within Iraq may start to self-censor their expressions on social media, due to the risk of prosecution.

Under international human rights laws that Iraq has ratified, freedom of expression is considered a fundamental human right that encompasses even offensive speech. While certain restrictions are permitted, they must meet the test of legality, legitimacy, necessity, and proportionality. Importantly, restrictions must be clearly and narrowly defined, respond to pressing social needs, be the least intrusive measures available, and be proportionate in balancing the benefit to the protected interest against the harm to freedom of expression. Ambiguous and overly broad terms such as “violating public integrity or decency” fail to meet these requirements and leave room for abuse, including the suppression of peaceful dissent.

Importantly, the regulation raises concerns about the potential for censorship and the suppression of free speech of online content. Such censorship is often in tension with international human rights standards that protect free expression and the public’s right to access information. Unfortunately, censorship policies are often influenced by a variety of factors, including political pressure and interests, which may undermine democratic values. The Iraqi government has defended the campaign as necessary to combat harmful content online. However, critics argue that the law’s provisions are too broad and vague, potentially leading to the suppression of legitimate dissenting opinions and criticism of the government. In fact, the campaign may be used to target minority groups, activists, and journalists critical of the government.

Also, the regulation may have a chilling effect on the development of a robust civil society in Iraq. The internet has played a significant role in enabling civic participation and the development of civil society in many countries, particularly those undergoing political transition or emerging from conflict. However, the regulations may stifle online activism and dissent, undermining the development of a vibrant civil society and limiting the ability of citizens to hold the government accountable.

Censorship and Suppression of Dissent

The problems with this Iraqi regulation are not unique to the country. Many other countries have attempted to regulate online content, often with similarly vague and broad provisions that raise concerns about the suppression of free speech and the right to access information. Such laws often reflect a lack of understanding of the unique challenges posed by the internet and the importance of protecting free speech.

Collectively, limiting the freedom of expression and opinion on social media can result in severe implications, such as impeding creativity, suppressing varied perspectives, and undermining democratic principles, which is unfortunately the present situation in Iraq. Though it is crucial for the authorities to safeguard citizens’ fundamental human rights, the Iraqi government appears to have regressed to another backward step in the protection of freedom.

About the Author
Shermeen is an assistant professor, a female academic who witnessed women’s rights issues within the civil unrest of post-war Iraq, escaped to the United States and earned a doctorate degree. She is an activist and a writer who focuses on social and political change in Iraq and the Middle East, as well as feminism and increasing awareness of women’s rights in the region.
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