Plans by the Iraqi Parliament to debate and approve a controversial cybercrimes draft law have unleashed a storm in the country where activists say its vague wording threatens freedom of expression.
The bill, known as the Law on Information Technology Crimes, was first drafted in 2011 and introduced in 2013, but withdrawn under pressure from local and international non-governmental organisations.
Lawmakers will put the draft to parliament again on Monday, according to lawmaker Abdul-Khalil Al Azzawi.
The draft, published on the Parliament website, addresses a wide range of cybercrimes, but what concerns activists are several articles that impose heavy prison sentences and hefty fines against peaceful critics who express themselves online.
One of the articles calls for life imprisonment and fines of no less than 25 million Iraqi dinar (about $25,000) and maximum 50 million Iraqi dinar (about $40,000) for anyone who threatens the country’s “independence, unity, safety and its economic, political, military and security interests.”
The same penalty is applied to anyone “disturbing the general peace and security and defaming the country’s reputation.”
And for anyone “assaults the religious or ethical or family or social or private life principles and values” could face no less than one year prison term and fines ranging from 2-5 million Iraqi dinar ($1,600-4,000), according to the bill.
The Baghdad-based Iraqi Observatory for Press Freedoms expressed concerns that the language of the draft may lead to the restriction of freedom of expression.
In a statement on Saturday, it warns of “possible consequences … amid troubled and unstable political and social circumstances.”
It not only puts the media outlets, journalists and writers at risk, but also normal people as it threatens their freedom of expression, it added.
“It will bring a lot of writers, journalists and bloggers before a judge in the event of explaining the published content as a violation,” it said.
The statement suggests removing any articles that could affect the freedom of expression and focusing only on cybercrimes, such as blackmailing and theft.
After the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 2003 US-led invasion of the country, Iraqis, for the first time in decades, started to practice freedom of expression in online platforms and street protests. The country’s constitution, enacted in 2005, guarantees such freedoms.
Since then, Iraqis have express their criticism to political and religious leaders through writings, cartoons and TV shows. Some journalists, writers and activists have been assassinated by unknown gunmen, while others faced threats, lawsuits or even tribal arbitration.
In October 2019, Iraq witnessed widespread anti-government protests that lasted for months before dying down due to pandemic and heavy-handed crackdowns by security forces and Iran-backed Shiite militias. Up to 600 protesters were killed and thousands wounded in the crackdowns.
One means used by the previous government to quell the demonstrators was shutting down the internet to prevent communication and content sharing between protesters.
“They want to make sure to stifle all critical voices and to restrict freedom of expression,” said activist Hashim Al Jabouri in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the epicentre of October protests, where intermittent demonstrations are still taking place.
“As they [lawmakers] know very well by now that shutting down internet didn’t silence the Iraqi street before, they are trying now to move a law that criminalises anyone who criticises their corruption, tyranny and repressive tactics,” Mr Al Jabouri added.
Dozens of Iraqis gathered on Saturday outside the Ministry of Higher Education to denounce the law.
One banner portrayed the law as a needle stitching together human lips and read: “This law will bring back dictatorship and will silence all critical voices against those in power.”