Iraq cybercrime law would 'severely undermine' free speech, say rights groups

In a joint letter released on Friday, several Iraqi and international human rights and media organizations strongly urged the parliament in Baghdad to withdraw...

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – In a joint letter released on Friday, several Iraqi and international human rights and media organizations strongly urged the parliament in Baghdad to withdraw, or make significant critical changes to, a controversial internet bill now before it.

"While we recognize the necessity to legislate on cyber criminality, we argue that should this law be enacted in its current form," read the statement, "it would constitute a serious setback for freedom of expression in Iraq, and would establish a climate of self-censorship in the country."

The signatories of the letter include the Iraq Journalists Right Defence Association, the Iraqi Network for Social Media, the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights, the International Press Institute, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch.

The text of the Law on Information Technology Crimes, which received its first reading in parliament in January, is almost identical to a previous 2011 bill that was roundly criticized as "draconian" and later withdrawn.

"We are particularly concerned over articles 3, 4 and 6 which punish vague and imprecise acts that could fall under the right to freedom of expression with life imprisonment and heavy fines," the letter states.

The law defines crimes with unclear or subjective terms that free speech advocates say can be used by the government to target those exercising rights enshrined in Iraq's constitution. Examples of such terms include "undermining the independence, the integrity and safety of the country," or "provoking sectarian strife, disturbing the security and public order, or harming the reputation of the country."

"We are also concerned by other vaguely worded provisions which would provide excessive discretion to the authorities, allowing them to stifle the right to freedom of expression," such as articles that criminalize acts violating "any religious, moral, family or social principles or values or privacy of private life" or acts "breaching public decency and morals."

In addition, a provision allows for terms of two years in prison for anyone found guilty of "defamation and libel," thus assigning a criminal punishment as a result of a civil complaint. This is something Iraqi courts have been known to do in the past, to the puzzlement of international legal observers.

The recent push by Iraq's Media and Communications Commission to pass the law comes months after internet crackdowns that the Iraqi government enacted in response to demonstrations that spread throughout Iraq’s central and southern provinces between July and September.

Baghdad disabled internet service and further restricted access to social media sites nationwide just as protests flared, something the Ministry of Communications claimed was caused by "technical difficulties."

Amnesty International wrote, of the events, "Peaceful protesters who were fired on by security forces, believe the authorities deliberately disabled internet access as they were unable to share images and videos depicting the abuses."