Freedom of expression is under threat in Iraq, again

A draft law could see people accused of ‘damaging’ the reputation of the country jailed for life.

Iraq internet FILE Reuters
File: People surf the Internet at an Internet cafe in Baghdad, Iraq [File:Mohammed Ameen/Reuters]

On January 12, the Iraqi parliament announced that it had completed its first reading of the draft “Information Technology Crimes Law”, otherwise known as the cybercrime law.

This is not the first time this legislative proposal surfaces. A draft law with similar provisions was first discussed in parliament 2011, but had to be tabled in 2013 following a campaign by international and local NGOs, which said it would severely threaten freedom of expression in the country. Under the proposed law, the violation of any “religious, moral, family or social principles or values” would be punishable by at least one year in prison, while “harming the reputation of the country” online could carry a life sentence.

Back in February 2013, the parliament speaker approved the request of the parliamentary committee for media and culture’s to withdraw the law. However, the decision was never brought to a vote and thus was never endorsed. As a result, the flawed text was put aside for over five years. 

In October 2018, just a few weeks after the newly elected parliament held its first session, the cybercrime law was resuscitated. Since civil society thought the text was old history, its reintroduction came as an unpleasant surprise. In a long press release, the parliament emphasised the existing legal “loophole” and the need to legislate on cyber-criminality, stating that the 2011 text was still “under consideration”.

Interestingly, the press release refers to two fellow Arab countries, Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as the pioneers in cybercrime legislation, which passed similar legislation in 2001 and 2006 respectively.

What the press release does not say is how these laws have since been used to crack down on freedom of speech online. A striking example is the sentencing of prominent award-winning human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor to 10 years in prison in May 2018 in the UAE. Mansoor was accused of, among other things, “seeking to damage the relationship of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with its neighbours by publishing false reports and information on social media” under the repressive UAE cybercrime law.

The fact that the Iraqi parliament considers such legislation as shining examples is frightening, to say the least. What is worse, under the draft bill, an “Iraqi Ahmed Mansoor” would not face 10 years in prison – he would face a life sentence.

Before the parliamentary session opening on March 9, during which the proposal could past a second reading, paving the way for its adoption, 10 local and international NGOs wrote to the Council of Representatives asking it to withdraw the text.

The NGOs slammed the law’s vaguely worded provisions – including acts “undermining the independence, the integrity and safety of the country”, “provoking sectarian strife”, or “harming the reputation of the country” – for providing excessive discretion to the authorities, thus allowing them to stifle the freedom of expression protected under Iraqi and international human rights law. 

However, it is worth noting that the move to pass the law did not take place in a vacuum. In 2018, the Iraqi authorities repeatedly shut down the internet and blocked social media sites during the wave of anti-government and anti-corruption protests that swept through the country. According to advocacy group Access Now, Iraq is the country which has carried out the third-highest number of internet shutdowns, after India and Pakistan.

In addition, Iraqi journalists and peaceful critics are also threatened on a regular basis, subjected to assaults and judicial harassment by state authorities, as well as militias. Reporters Without Borders considers press freedom to be in a “very bad” situation in Iraq, which ranks 160th out of 180 countries on the 2018 World Press Freedom Index.

In this already repressive context, passing the cybercrime law would have a detrimental effect on freedom of expression and the right to access information in Iraq.

The fact that the first deputy speaker of the parliament, Hassan Karim al-Kaabi, recently stressed the necessity to amend the law to ensure it does not conflict with the right of Iraqis to freedom of expression might be a sign that there is – to some extent – awareness and political will to not adopt the flawed text. However, this will not be enough to stop the legislation from being passed. 

Today, civil society fears that if the text is not withdrawnthe consideration of the cybercrime law will merely be “suspended” until further notice – the parliament’s usual practice when it comes to problematic legislation.

The problem with such a move is that it may lead to the legislation resurfacing yet again at a later date, when it should simply be withdrawn and redrafted in consultation with civil society organisations. Article 13 of the Constitution of Iraq states that no law contradicting constitutional provisions can be enacted, and if it is enacted, it will be considered as “void”.

It should be clear to Iraqi legislators that the draft cybercrime law contradicts article 38 of the constitution, which unequivocally guarantees the right to freedom of expression. As a result, the draft law should be withdrawn without further delay.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.