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Iraq: Threats to Freedom of Expression


The Iraqi government has re-introduced two draft laws to the Parliament which, if passed, would severely curtail the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly of the people of Iraq, Amnesty International and INSM Foundation for Digital Rights in Iraq said today.

The reintroduction of these draft laws coincides with a spate of prosecutions targeting people who are critical of government figures, as well as a Ministry of Interior-led campaign to crack down on “indecent content” online. Between January and June this year, the authorities prosecuted at least 20 individuals over the peaceful exercise of their human right to free expression. Six people were sentenced to prison terms but have since been released.

“The Iraqi authorities’ latest attempt to repress free expression reveals their blatant disregard for the extraordinary sacrifices made by Iraqis during the 2019 uprising to secure their freedoms. The Iraqi government should immediately withdraw these repressive draft laws and parliament should not pass any laws that would unduly restrict the human rights of Iraqis,” said Bissan Fakih, Amnesty International’s Regional Campaigner for Iraq and Yemen.

“The people of Iraq have a right to criticize their leaders and religious figures, and to protest peacefully without fear of imprisonment and heavy fines. These rights are especially important at a time when the Iraqi people are seeking to hold government officials accountable for allegations of systemic corruption and human rights violations.”

The proposed draft Law on Freedom of Expression and Peaceful Assembly would give the Iraqi authorities the cover of a democratically adopted law to arbitrarily prosecute anyone who makes public comments that violate “public morals” or “public order”. Under the proposed draft Law on Cybercrimes, meanwhile, those posting online content that is deemed to undermine the vaguely defined “country’s supreme economic, political, military, or security interests” could face a sentence of up to life imprisonment and a fine of up to 50 million Iraqi Dinars (around $38,000 USD).

In meetings with Amnesty International in Baghdad in May, human rights defenders and activists expressed alarm that the drafts would empower the authorities to further suppress peaceful dissent. The proposed reforms are causing deep concern due to the recent spate of freedom of expression prosecutions.

Journalist Haidar al-Hamdani is being tried pursuant to a criminal defamation complaint filed against him by the governor of Basra, who Al-Hamdani had accused of corruption in a video posted to Facebook where he has more than one million followers.

One Iraqi comedian prosecuted by an Iraqi court during the “indecent content” campaign told Amnesty International: “I am no longer able to make fun of a party, or the state, or a public figure … or the state of the roads, water, schools, or bridges. Why? Because it all belongs to the [political] parties”.

Curtailing freedom of expression and peaceful assembly

On 9 May 2023, Parliament held its second reading of the proposed Law on Freedom of Expression and Peaceful Assembly and Mohammed al-Halbousi, the speaker of Parliament, may call for a general vote on the law at any time.

Amendments to both draft laws are being privately discussed by lawmakers, according to individuals who have been involved in discussions and have seen proposed new language in the drafts. Yet these amendments have not been made public, and it is unclear whether the drafts will be shared with members of the public ahead of a possible vote.

Hayder Hamzoz, Executive Director of INSM, said: “It is unacceptable that in Iraq today we are suffering from a lack of access to information on draft laws under consideration by parliament. Access to information is an inherent human right and it is one of the keys to the rule of law, to empower citizens and enable them to engage effectively in political life and the fight against corruption.”

The draft law prohibits the undermining of “religions, religious beliefs, sects”. Those caught “publicly insulting a ritual or a symbol or a person who constitutes an object of sanctification, worship or reverence to a religious sect” face up to 10 years imprisonment and a fine of up to 10,000,000 Iraqi Dinars ($7,600 USD).

As religious figures play a prominent role in Iraq’s major political parties, banning criticism of them would severely limit people’s exercise of their right to freedom of expression. Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), when a state party imposes restrictions on the exercise of freedom of expression, these may not put in jeopardy the right itself. The relation between right and restriction and between norm and exception must not be reversed.

The draft law also allows the authorities to ban public gatherings unless prior permission is obtained from the authorities at least five days in advance. It does not state what criteria the Iraqi authorities would apply in approving or prohibiting protests, in effect giving them the power to ban all protests.

In its authoritative interpretation of ICCPR Article 21 on freedom of assembly, the UN Human Rights Committee has stressed in its General Comment no. 37 that “having to apply for permission from the authorities undercuts the idea that peaceful assembly is a basic right” and that “where authorization regimes persist… they must in practice function as a system of notification, with authorization being granted as a matter of course, in the absence of compelling reasons to do otherwise.”

Protesters in Iraq already face repression at the hands of security agencies and this risk is heightened anytime the authorities deem a protest to be “unauthorized,” since they regularly resort to the use of force to disperse such protests. Amnesty International has previously documented how, during the 2019 nationwide anti-government protests, at least 600 protesters were killed and thousands more injured after security forces resorted to the use of lethal force.

Policing online freedom of expression

The government re-introduced the draft Law on Cybercrimes to Parliament in November 2022. Under the vaguely worded proposed law, anyone found guilty of “inflaming sectarian tensions or strife” or “undermining the country’s independence, unity, and safety, or its supreme economic, political, military, or security interests” could face a sentence of up to life imprisonment and a fine of up to 50 million Iraqi Dinars (around $38,000 USD).

“In April 2023, the Iraqi government reaffirmed its promise to Amnesty International to guarantee public freedoms, yet their actions in Parliament do not match up,” said Bissan Fakih, Regional Campaigner at Amnesty International.

© 2023 Amnesty International

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