Restrictions, intimidation dent freedom of speech in Iraq

Sunday 29/01/2017
A protester holds a portrait of Iraqi journalist Afrah Shawqi during a demonstration calling for her release, last December, in Baghdad. (AFP)

Baghdad - “I n the name of religion… a cover for thieves,” activist Ali Sumari shouted during protests denouncing ram­pant corruption in Iraq, a stance that earned him death threats. Sumari insists “free speech and the right to protest” are the most appropriate weapons to fight graft in Iraq.
“There is a flagrant attempt by the government and certain parties in power to suppress freedoms of speech and muzzle the public but this will only lead to further de­termination for gaining the rights stipulated under the Iraqi constitu­tion,” Sumari said, referring to the December 26th kidnapping of Iraqi journalist Afrah Shawqi, who was released ten days later after public pressure.
“She was obviously kidnapped because of her opinions, which up­set them, so they decided to punish her in such a blatant way,” Sumari said, adding that dozens of activists and journalists have been arrested or abducted in recent years. Others have vanished or were found dead.
Sumari, other activists and jour­nalists say they fear the situation could worsen in Iraq.
A revised draft measure on free­dom of expression and peaceful demonstrations would punish with up to 15 years in prison anyone breaching the law. Violations would include insulting religious symbols or figures. The proposed law also makes it more difficult to obtain permits to protest in public.
“The draft law in its present form openly contradicts Article 28 of the Iraqi constitution that guaran­tees freedom of speech and peace­ful demonstration,” legal adviser Ali Tamimi said. “It has also failed to include strikes and sit-ins and gave the authorities the power to ban demonstrations for the sake of ‘safeguarding public interest’, a very loose term that can be easily manipulated and used against pro­testers.”
The Iraqi Press Syndicate said more than 455 members of the Iraqi media have been killed since 2003, including 20 in 2016. Iraq ranked 158th among 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index last year.
Political activist Ali Sattar blamed the deterioration of freedom of ex­pression in Iraq on the rise of reli­gious and sectarian movements and armed groups.
“Self-censorship has become the norm, while crossing red lines requires big guts, which generally lead to serious consequences. The only available free space is on social media where one can hide behind pseudonyms,” Sattar said.
Popular protests that swept Iraq more than a year ago were marred by assassinations targeting political activists, organisers of anti-corrup­tion demonstrations and journal­ists. The government’s apparent in­ability or unwillingness to respond to such crimes “should not deter demands for freedom of speech, otherwise the country will slip into the unknown”, Sattar warned.
Journalist Hamza Mustapha, who resigned from the Saudi Asharq Al- Awsat newspaper after being ac­cused of publishing “fabricated” information, contended that free­dom of expression was guaranteed under the Iraqi constitution. He said the mechanisms governing speech and press rights existed but they were seriously undermined by poor enforcement and the rampant influence of tribes, partisan parties and armed groups.
“Had the law in this country been enforced and respected, matters would not have deteriorated so badly. In theory, the law guarantees freedom but in practice it does not exist,” he said.
Ziad al-Ajili, head of Baghdad’s Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, stated a less gloomy outlook.
“Freedom of speech is available in different forms and red lines have been crossed in many instanc­es against religious and political figures but definitely there are tre­mendous constraints and limits, es­pecially in accessing information… The margin of freedom might be very narrow. However, acquiring it is not impossible,” Ajili contended.
Sumari said “the battle will be long and strewn with obstacles raised by corruption sharks” but he insisted that “speaking out is the only weapon available to the pub­lic”.
He argues that lawlessness, the weakness of legal institutions and the proliferation of arms in the hands of private militias “encour­aged many to encroach on people’s freedoms and rights, especially press people and activists”.
Sumari said the “only gain” achieved after the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in 2003 was the consecration of pub­lic freedoms in the Iraqi constitu­tion. “That is why we have to fight to ensure our rights by rejecting all forms of muzzling and attempts to silence us regarding the unprece­dented proliferation of lawlessness and corruption in the country,” he said.