Iraqi protesters wave national flags as they gather at Tahrir square during anti-government demonstrations in Baghdad on October 31, 2019. (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images)
Analysis

Free Speech Under Threat in Iraq

Since 2019, the Iraq protest movement, dubbed the “Tishreen (October) Revolution,” has revealed the lengths to which both state and non-state actors are willing to silence dissent and free speech. Iraqi activists and protestors have been subjected to vicious and persistent hate speech campaigns, both online and offline, that aim to discredit them and the movement. Iran-affiliated militias and media outlets have been using the term “jokers” as a label to delegitimize activists and protestors, falsely accusing them of being foreign agents hellbent on destruction. As the protest movement gained widespread support despite such efforts to silence it, Adel Abdul Mahdi’s then-government enforced a series of internet blackouts to prevent online coverage. Nevertheless, activists persisted. All throughout, policing Iraqi voices and bodies has become a way of governance, through both legislative and physical suppression. 

Physical repression

While Iraq has witnessed protests on an annual basis for over a decade, protests erupting throughout the country in early October 2019 were the most expansive and gained widespread support from professional guilds, academic unions, and student bodies. While protests initially erupted in the Shia-majority center and south of the country (where protesters are more organized and experienced), they were followed by protests in the Kurdish Region and Sunni-majority governorates, where local security forces swiftly arrested activists. Thousands of protestors filled public squares and blocked roads in their cities to peacefully demonstrate. In the following months, violence against protestors and journalists covering the demonstrations was common practice. In addition to live ammunition and rubber bullets, state forces fired tear gas canisters directly at protesters, killing many. Gruesome videos of dead protestors with tear gas grenades permeating their skulls circulated on the internet. Among those killed was prominent Baghdad activist Safaa’ al-Sarray. In a matter of months, state security forces—primarily riot police—and paramilitaries’ snipers killed over 700 protestors, and injured over 20,000, permanently handicapping dozens. Numbers have continued to rise since, and as of March 2021, 1,035 protestors are reported to have been killed, and 26,300 injured. Meanwhile in the Kurdish Region of Iraq, Kurdish security forces killed at least six protestors and arrested 400 in December 2020. 

As state and non-state forces continue to target protestors with systemic, fatal violence, enforced disappearances—a longstanding tactic—have also been weaponized. According to the International Commission on Missing Persons, somewhere between 250,000 to one million Iraqis have been forcibly disappeared since 2003. Among the most notable abduction was that of 150 academics and staff at the Ministry of Higher Education in November 2006. Rounded up by armed men and loaded onto trucks, most have not been seen since. Enforced disappearances have long been weaponized by Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other militant groups in Iraq to silence critics, dissenters, and other citizens for their ethnoconfessional identities. Iraq’s recent governments have been doing the same. Despite calls from human rights organizations on this matter, there has been no progress. Iraq’s High Commission for Human Rights cites around 7,663 enforced disappearances in the past three years alone. Enforced disappearances have particularly become a weapon of choice for militias and state institutions to silence protestors and activists since October 2019. In recent months, many activists and protestors have gone missing, likely in secret prisons. Among the most notable disappearances are those of Sajjad al-Iraqi, Abdul Masih Romeo Sarkees, and Ali Jaseb Hattab. The later assassination of Hattab’s father, who was vocal in his search for him, sent a resounding and terrorizing message to silence all missing persons’ families.

Assassinations of outspoken activists and critics have increased since the protest movement began. In 2020, a string of assassinations claimed the lives of activists Reham Yaqoub and Tahseen Osama as well as journalists Ahmed Abdul Samad and Safaa Ghali in Basra, activist Anwar Mhawwas and lawyer Ali al-Hamami in Nasiriyah, university professor Ahmed al-Sharifi and activist Amjad al-Duhamat in Amarah, researcher Husham al-Hashimi in Baghdad, activist Hawrê Kurdî in Erbil, among many others. Similarly, many of those forcibly disappeared include academics, journalists, and lawyers. The mass abduction of 150 academics and staff years prior is a case in point that forced the Minister of Education to shut down universities and colleges at the time. Moreover, the Iraq Bar Association lists 194 of its members as either assassinated or killed in terror attacks since 2003, 60 of whom have no cause or year of death listed, raising the possibility that some have been forcibly disappeared. Aside from academics and lawyers, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports at least four journalists have been killed in Iraq over the past two years and over four imprisoned, while nine have been missing since 2014. These statistics—along with the shutdown of media broadcasters and offices in the Kurdish Region and the rest of Iraq to silence protest coverage—reflect a grim reality of state-sponsored repression.

Institutional repression

Once a regional pillar in literary production and scientific inquiry, Iraq’s academic institutions have been crumbling since the late part of Saddam Hussein’s regime and face greater threat today. Conflict, assassinations, enforced disappearances, and suppressed freedom of speech have weakened centers of higher education, defunded research facilities, and silenced the academics running them. Neither is the infrastructure—destroyed through decades of sanctions, war, and terrorism—intact, nor does government and institutional corruption allow for the restoration of the education system. 

In October 2020, Iraq’s parliament passed the Higher Education Accreditation Law, which the President ratified two months later. This law was met with wide outrage, especially from academics both in Iraq and the diaspora. The Association of Iraqi Academics in the United Kingdom called it, “Explicitly political and a danger to the future of higher education in Iraq.” The law suffers from a number of grave issues. First, the law was not presented to the Iraqi cabinet before parliament vote, which violated protocol. Second, it contradicts existing laws, such as Law 40 (1988), which defers all matters pertaining to university and degree accreditation to experts in the Ministry of Higher Education. Third, many parliamentarians lack the knowledge and expertise relevant to decisions that pertain to higher education. With the diploma fraud common among MPs, not to mention blind loyalties to party politics, placing the accreditation of degrees in their hands means politicizing and degrading the quality of higher education in Iraq. It also means stripping academics of their status as experts in higher education and has strong negative implications for free speech, including for students.

A month after the legislation of the Higher Education Accreditation Law, Parliament proposed the Combatting Cybercrimes Bill. This bill dates back to 2011, when a previous wave of protests had erupted throughout the country. At the time, Iraq’s cabinet proposed an “Information Technology Crimes Bill” to Parliament. Human Rights Watch warned that it would most likely be used to restrict free speech, in violation of international law and pose a severe threat to journalists, whistleblowers, and peaceful activists. The draft legislation did not pass, but Iraq’s parliament reintroduced it in November 2019 after October protests erupted, this time referring to it as the “Combatting Cybercrimes Bill.” It was not voted on in 2019 but was reintroduced yet again under the same name in November 2020.

This bill can be clearly understood as an institutional effort and threat to silence dissent, restrict free speech, and severely punish any criticism expressed online. This has the potential to impact not only activism and journalism, but also academia in Iraq. Human Rights Watch, MENA Rights Group, and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting have all reported on and expressed wide outrage over the latest draft legislation that aims to control public narratives. Parliament thus redrafted the bill and proposed amendments that insufficiently address restrictions to free speech. Like its predecessors, this draft uses ambiguous language, leaving matters open to interpretation and various legal loopholes that can be easily manipulated to silence online dissent, whistleblowing, journalism, and basic criticism. The draft legislation also makes no reference whatsoever to hate speech and online death threats—both intensifying issues that aim to stifle free speech. The bill effectively focuses on policing and criminalizing online behavior, rather than protecting civil liberties and free speech. Although Parliament eventually suspended the Combatting Cybercrimes Bill for further redrafting, the consistent attempts to legislate it over the years—especially around waves of protests—demonstrate a persistent, systemic effort to silence dissent, restrict free speech, and severely punish any criticism expressed online. Moreover, researchers and human rights defenders report that MPs have directed them to various working drafts while claiming that each is the final version, a sign of a lack of transparency when it comes to contentious legislation process intended to confuse journalists and observers.

The Freedom of Assembly and Peaceful Demonstrations Bill represents yet another attempt by Parliament to pass a legislation geared towards stifling free speech. Although the draft legislation was first proposed in 2016, it was set aside and reintroduced in 2019, only to go through the same process and be reintroduced yet again in March 2021. This time, the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee proposed amendments to the previous versions of the bill, which had received wide criticism from Iraqi and international human rights organizations. Consistent with previous drafts that prohibited unauthorized peaceful assemblies from taking place in public spaces, the latest draft of the bill establishes a notification-based system to organize protests—leaving the authorization of protests in the hands of a corrupt government with a history of anti-protest violence. The bill also contains articles that penalize organizers of unauthorized assemblies or peaceful demonstrations with fines as well as imprisonment for up to one year. Moreover, the bill authorizes the use of force “if the public assembly or demonstration was organized contrary to the provisions of the law.” While the government has exercised anti-protest violence with no law for justification, this law would open the door for state and non-state actors to legally sanction that justification. Laws that penalize peaceful assembly and sanction the use of violence to disperse them only enables the continuation of the aforementioned human rights violations. Furthermore, the draft legislation prohibits the use of face masks or any other items that may be used to conceal facial features. With death threats, assassinations, and arrests commonplace, Iraqi activists and protestors have good reason to ensure their own safety by resorting to anonymity during demonstrations. As various human rights organizations have vocally expressed, the Freedom of Assembly and Peaceful Demonstrations Bill aims to suppress free speech in Iraq and violates international standards.

This suppression of dissenting voices is also commonly practiced by local government and paramilitaries in the semi-autonomous Kurdish Region on protestors, journalists, teachers, and activists, including children. Moreover, in February 2021, a Kurdish court sentenced two activists and three journalists to six years in prison for organizing and covering “unauthorized protests” and documenting human rights violations. The court also ignored testimony from journalist Sherwan Amin Sherwani—a defendant in the trial—of his torture in prison. The Kurdish Region’s Court of Cassation has since upheld the prison sentence. 

In another dangerous move that further threatens free speech and human rights, Kurdish Regional Government Prime Minister Masrour Barzani baselessly accused arrested journalists and activists of espionage. While officials defame activists, protestors, journalists, and academics—often in an effort to delegitimize their work—they have also launched defamation suits against. The legal process itself, with the costs of legal fees for defendants, exists as a form of intimidation and punishment.

Another method of intimidation was the circulation of a list of activists, journalists, and academics criminally charged under the Anti-Terror Law for their mobilization of protests—a charge that could come with the death penalty. Some of these defendants were arrested but later released due to the organized work of lawyers, who also have long been targeted for their work. Such efforts to legitimize suppression of free speech are not new, but indicate a consistent, systemic problem all throughout Iraq, including the Kurdish Region. 

Conclusion

By policing every platform where citizens can practice free speech—street protests, universities, the press, and cyberspace—Iraq’s political elite continue to send a clear message. By silencing activists, journalists, academics, and the public’s online discourse, the political elite and militia affiliates aim to dominate and reshape public narratives. Critical thinking, the dissemination of knowledge, and freedom of expression are all at risk. While Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi had called for national dialogue on the heels of Pope Francis’s visit to Iraq, and has set October 10 as the date for the upcoming national elections, he must demonstrate his commitment. For dialogue to take place, building restorative transitional justice mechanisms rooted in accountability and inclusivity are necessary. No election can take place without accountability or an environment safe for healthy and free public discourse. 

In this effort, the Higher Education Accreditation Law must be amended or repealed via new legislation. Moreover, both the Combatting Cybercrime Bill and Freedom of Assembly and Peaceful Demonstrations Bill should be redrafted to protect constitutional rights and freedoms. Iraq must abide by international standards to which it is a signatory, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which maintains that peaceful modes of protest and speech must be protected from excessive use of force, undue sanctions, or criminal charges. Iraq must also abide by the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances to which it is a signatory, and must look into the immediate release of all detained activists and protestors as well as legislating protections against future enforced disappearances. More legislation must be passed to create a safe environment for free speech, without which Iraq—including the Kurdish Region—is headed towards a dark and frightening future.

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