New regulations on “degrading content” are part of a broader campaign to silence independent voices.
Dozens of Iraqis gathered in Tahrir Square in Baghdad in January to demand that the government release relatives who disappeared during protests in 2019. © Ahmed Jalil / EPA, via Shutterstock.
By Alissa J. Rubin
A different post shows a Baghdad fashionista modeling clothes, including an outfit based on the Iraqi Army uniform.
A fourth features a young man in a black sweatshirt and pants interviewing a young woman, also clad in black, about her private life. It is one of several clips he has made of young people dressed in close-fitting clothes that strike conservative Iraqis as provocative.
A few months ago, the people featured in these clips were stars of Iraq’s booming social media scene. No longer.
They have been largely silenced by being tried, convicted and sentenced to time in Iraq’s overcrowded prison system because of new Interior Ministry rules against “indecent” or “immoral” content on social media.
This crackdown on social media is relatively new, but is of a piece with a broader campaign to silence, sideline or co-opt those who publicly question or criticize the government.
That wider effort traces its roots to the months of demonstrations in 2019 and 2020, when young Iraqis poured into the streets demanding an end to corruption, a reduction in Iranian influence in Iraq and a new era of openness. Those demonstrations eventually forced the resignation of the prime minister, who was supported by Iranian-linked parties in the government.
Given the comparative calm in Iraq today, the intensifying repression of social media and speech more broadly may seem unexpected. Bombings, rocket attacks and gunfights are rare in most of the country. The Islamic State cells that exist are small and seem more intent on their own survival than on widespread destruction.
However, Iraq’s coalition government increasingly has been controlled by political parties with links to Iran.
Human rights and democracy advocates say that to prevent any recurrence of the upheaval that occurred four years ago, the government seeks to limit independent voices in the public square, using lawsuits, detentions, online harassment, threats and occasionally kidnapping or assassination. Often it is unclear exactly which acts violate public order and morality, according to the U.S. State Department’s most recent report on human rights, as well as areport by Human Rights Watch and other free speech and human rights organizations.
Um Fahad, the social media influencer who was dancing on her son’s birthday, said she still did not understand why she was arrested and imprisoned. “The judge asked me why I am dancing and showing part of my breast,” she said in an interview, after her release from jail.
Dr. Ali al-Bayati, a former member of the Iraqi Human Rights Commission who now lives outside Iraq because of lawsuits and threats against him, said, “The idea is to silence any criticism, anything that can instigate the public, change the public attitude and anything that might in the future escalate public unrest.”
The commission itself has been largely silenced. In 2021, the federal court stripped commissioners of their immunity, making them vulnerable to financially crippling lawsuits from any politician, government ministry or party. That curbed the commission’s efforts to hold to account Iraqi government officials or institutions for human rights violations under Iraqi and international law.
With this critical watchdog neutered, politicians, parties and people connected to religious organizations have been refining their efforts to reduce public criticism of the government and government figures, creating an atmosphere that reinforces self-censorship.
For its part, the Iraqi government says journalists and democracy organizations in the country have many more freedoms than was the case under Saddam Hussein, when the press was entirely government-controlled. Officials note accurately that when government critics are pursued in court, in the majority of cases they eventually prevail. However, this does not take into account that detention, even if the person is released or the case dropped, can damage a person’s livelihood or family.
“Our journalists can go anywhere, and most of them have respect for our society and they have the right to speak,” said Saad Ma’an, who heads the Interior Ministry’s new committee that reviews social media for impermissible content.
The new social media rules came into force in January, when the ministry set up a platform that allows Iraqis to denounce or report any content that “violates public morals, contains negative and indecent messages and undermines social stability.”
So far, Mr. Ma’an said, the ministry has received more than 150,000 complaints. Of those, 14 people were charged for publishing “indecent” or “immoral” content on social media, and of those eight have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from six months to two years. Often the terms are reduced on appeal. Many complaints remain under investigation.
Mr. Ma’an said the new rules aim to “protect our families.” He added: “There is a right to talk on social media, on Facebook, on Tik Tok, but there is a line. You cannot cross that line.”
He used as examples two clips in which two different female social media influencers embraced their young sons and talked suggestively about love; one was the same fashionista who modeled the army uniform.
Although Iraq’s popular social media influencers have received the most attention lately, the campaign has been at least as harsh against those who criticize Iraqi government officials.
Among them is Mohammed Nena, a political researcher and writer who, during the prime minister’s campaign for office, said both in essays and on television that the future prime minister lacked strategic vision and would be a hostage of the Shiite parties with links to Iran who supported him. Mr. Nena was sued for defamation by the prime minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, and arrested on March 25. Released on bail, he is awaiting trial.
Haider Hamdani, a journalist in southern Iraq who covers corruption, has been acquitted in eight cases, but eight others are still pending. One was brought this spring by the governor of Basra, who offered to drop the case if Mr. Hamdani apologized and disavowed what he had written.
Mr. Hamdani, who had written about corruption in the purchase of heavy machinery and ambulances in Basra and named those who had profited, refused. He was detained, and the judge set bail at 50 million Iraqi dinars, about $37,600. He receives threatening phone calls almost every day, he said. “I get anonymous messages saying, ‘Shut up, leave these subjects alone or your life will be in danger, and you have kids.’”
Many of the legal actions rely on Iraq’s 1969 penal code, according to lawyers familiar with the cases, including a criminal ban on “insulting another person” or “hurting his feelings” as well as laws against “insulting” various government officials or entities. The Iraqi Constitution, written in 2005 with Western input, guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of the press but also says any public expression should not “violate public order and morality,” and t does not define those terms.
Dissent has also been suppressed by more violent methods, including kidnappings, beatings and killings, carried out by masked men driving civilian vehicles. The government often says they are rogue groups posing as militias, while the State Department report refers to them as “paramilitary militias.”
In February, Jassim al-Asadi, a well-known advocate for the Iraqi marshes, which are part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, said he was kidnapped by an armed group and tortured after saying that Turkey and Iran were withholding water needed to keep the marshes alive. “I thought I would be killed,” he said. “If it had not been for my relatives and my tribe and the people who spoke up for me, I would be dead.”
The government never filed charges in his abduction.
Democracy advocates who want substantial changes in the government are discouraged. They say real protest has become impossible, both because of the new threats, and because of the government’s sidelining of the political party of the Shiite nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, which was the only serious challenge to the current governing coalition.
“There is no leadership now,” said Shuja al-Khafaji, 33, who was one of many young people helping to lead the opposition to the government four years ago, and was kidnapped and held for a day or so by an armed group that did not identify itself.
“Democracy in Iraq now is like other Arab countries,” he said, “that is, very limited. You cannot ask about certain things without somebody saying it is an insult and filing a lawsuit."
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