Freedom of expression is a loose term. It can be interpreted in many ways and practicing it can lead to various consequences, both for end users’ safety and the state’s national security, and that is the case for developed countries. However in developing countries like Iraq, this term can be very difficult to grasp, especially when democracy have been introduced fairly recently.
People are not used to expressing their ideas under dictatorships, and when they do, they might not do it right and eventually might end up crossing the line to hate-speech or violation of privacy.In Iraq, especially after a transitional phase, the lines got blurred and people will usually wait for instructions on how to handle different issues including freedom of speech. People will need awareness and knowledge on how to express their opinions in the right way.
Since 2003, the Iraqi government has not been too strict when it comes to online freedom of expression. At least compared to other regimes in the region. In general, Internet has not been an issue for the government and they have not considered it as a big threat compared to other Arab governments. People have full access to everything online with no censorship, which is something that not all Arab governments allow.
The reason behind this is the overall political and security situation and the lack of information that is being reported to the responsible officials. The Iraqi government had recently tried to establish a cyber crime law, which criminalizes activities and opinions that insult the state.The bill was written vaguely and did not meet international human rights standards, so activists and international and local organizations campaigned against that law.
Eventually, it did not pas. Nevertheless, we have to mention that in 2010, the bill for cyber crime law was introduced. Article 3 of the Act included mandatory life sentences for using computers or the Internet to compromise the "unity" of the state while engaging with an enemy in order to destabilize security and public order or expose the country to danger like to blow or damage networks belonging to security military, or intelligence authorities with a deliberate intention to harm state security.
This collision between state national security and online activism is threatened under Articles 4 and 5 of the bill. Life imprisonment is also imposed upon those who establish or manage a website with deliberate intent to promote ideas of ethnic cleansing, which are disruptive to public order, like promoting terrorist activities, promotion of human rights trafficking online, drug use, or the of religious violent online discourse.
Other articles of the Act aim to provide legal protection for the "legitimate use of computers and information networks" and to "punish the perpetrators of acts which violate the rights of users whether they may be individuals or legal entities." The more alarming elements of the Act include provisions to punish those who utilize information networks.
Many online activists in Iraq are targeted using a particular set of provisions in the bill. These provisions address individuals who create chaos in order to weaken the trust of the electronic system of the state, provoke or promote armed disobedience, disturb public order or harm the reputation of the country, or intrude, annoy or call computer and information network users without authorization or hinders their use. The penalties for these proposed crimes can range from 3 months to a lifetime in prison.
The prosecution of Iraqi online activists can be char
acterized to be irrational, vague, broad, and overly harsh. Iraq's new bill presents a grave threat to free expression and innovation. While the harsh, disproportionate sentences are most egregious, the overboard wording of most of the articles would strip away protections for the press, whistleblowers, activists, and even ordinary citizens.
Currently, some activists with the help of international organizations are writing a new draft on the cyber crime law, and it will be shared with the parliament.The challenge that most online activists face when they post or share controversial opinions online does not always come from the government but from other groups e.g. Militias and powerful political parties.
The government, in this case, will react because of the pressure from these groups.This happened with some journalists and activists around the country where they got arrested or harassed. But very recently, the judicial branch in Iraq decided to treat social media platforms as media platforms when it comes to stating opinions. A Judge mentioned “insulting others online is the same as insulting them on traditional media. It can lead to legal punishment”. Until now no legal mechanism had been introduced about how to implement that judicial decision.
In conclusion, Iraqis can express their opinions online freely to a certain extent because of the loose laws and the lack of technical awareness from officials. This fact is due to the fractured political and security situation in the country. Things might take a turn in the near future and Iraqis might face stricter online rules, but we do not have to wait until that day to raise awareness on online freedom of expression.
Hayder Al-Shakeri works on humanitarian and development issues around Iraq and the region with a focus on youth, human rights, and Internet freedom, in addition to that he has a passion for volunteerism and advocating towards a better society. Hayder has been with IGMENA since mid-2013 and participated in online courses, AIGF 2013 and IGF 2014.