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Iraq must reform 'vaguely worded' free speech laws, HRW says

Tuesday, 16 June 2020 21:23
Iraqi students take part in an anti-government march calling for an overhaul of the political system in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, on 18 February (AFP/File photo) Iraqi students take part in an anti-government march calling for an overhaul of the political system in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, on 18 February (AFP/File photo)

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on Iraq's new government to immediately reform laws dealing with freedom of expression, saying vaguely worded laws have been used to violate free speech during recent protests and the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

In a 42-page report released on Monday, the US-based rights group said that Iraqi authorities in Baghdad, as well as the Kurdistan region, had routinely used vaguely worded laws to bring criminal charges against people expressing dissenting voices.

During protests that erupted last year towards the end of the former government's term in office, authorities used a range of defamation and incitement legal provisions against critics - including journalists, activists, and other dissenting voices, the group found. 

HRW called on Iraq's new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, to use his new position to "replace criminal defamation articles in the penal code with civil defamation penalties and amend laws that limit free speech to comply with international law".

Given Kadhimi's stated willingness since taking office to make reforms, "the government has a unique opportunity to tackle over a decade of free speech restrictions", the group said in its report.

"Iraqi leaders should commit to fostering respect for international law as a way to better inform and protect their people," added Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at HRW. 

'Insulting the Arab community'

In recent months, HRW documented 33 cases that violated standard free speech protections that involved the prosecution of 21 activists and 14 journalists. It also documented 13 cases involving activists on social media and seven involving media coverage on government corruption. 

All of the cases from Baghdad-controlled areas occurred before Kadhimi and his government took office, HRW added.

Still, Iraq's penal code, which dates back to 1969, includes numerous defamation "crimes" such as "insulting the Arab community" or any government official, regardless of whether the statement is true. 

While human rights standards generally allow for restrictions against speech that harms people's reputations, those restrictions must be necessary and implemented narrowly, HRW warned.

Although few people in Iraq serve prison time for defamation, the criminal process itself acts as a punishment, the group said. 

"Reporting on abuses by the security forces or about corruption is especially risky," according to the group's report. 

In March, Middle East Eye spoke to Ali Jawad, a journalist with state-owned Al-Iraqiya TV, who had his salary cut after posts he had made on social media about Iraq's months-long anti-government protest movement. 

Jawad was told that the posts contravened regulations set by the Iraqi Media Network, which owns Al-Iraqiya. Jawad's colleague Ahmed Abdulhussein also had his salary cut for the same reason.  

The incident sparked outrage and inspired a hashtag that translates to "We Are All Ali Jawad," while protesters called on Iraqi authorities to protect journalism.

Crackdowns during coronavirus

HRW also documented several cases in which individuals and news agencies were penalised for speaking out against alleged government corruption during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

For instance, on 6 April, Haitham Sulaiman, a 48-year-old protest organiser, called on the Muthana governor to investigate allegations of health department corruption linked to the purchase of Covid-19 masks. Days later, Sulaiman was arrested, beaten and forced to sign a document stating the US had bankrolled the protest movement, HRW said.

Around the same time period, authorities in Iraq suspended the licence of the Reuters news agency to operate in Iraq, fining it around $21,000. 

The closure, which lasted for more than two weeks, was over an article published at the start of April that alleged the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the country was much higher than official statistics indicated.

Wille said the pandemic should have highlighted "the vital and sometimes lifesaving role of a robust and inquisitive press and social media", instead of garnering prosecution of those documenting the issue. 

The group urged both the government in Baghdad, as well as the Kurdistan Regional Government, to reform its laws to ensure that any restrictions against speech are necessary and narrowly drawn.

"Given the mistrust between civil society and the media on the one hand and authorities on the other, Iraq's new government and Kurdish authorities should reform laws to bring them in line with international standards," Wille said. 

"Getting rid of vague provisions on insults and incitement would show that the authorities are committed to protecting free speech." 

Source: HRW