Rights group urges free speech protection in Iraq

Human Rights Watch says penal code used to crack down on government critics including activists and journalists.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on the Iraqi authorities, including in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, to enact reforms to its laws, saying vaguely worded laws have been used to violate the rights of critics, including activists and journalists, to freedom of expression.

In a 42-page report published on Monday, the US-based rights group detailed a range of defamation and incitement cases at the end of the former government’s term and during the new coronavirus pandemic, which were brought on by the Iraqi authorities against dissenting voices.

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It called on the parliaments of Iraq and the Kurdish region of northern Iraq 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”.

Iraq’s current penal code, which dates back to 1969, includes several defamation “crimes” such as “insulting the Arab community” and government officials, regardless of whether the allegation is true or not.

While international human rights law allows for restrictions on freedom of expression to protect people’s reputations, human rights lawyers agree that restrictions must be necessary and implemented narrowly.

“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,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at HRW in a statement.

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

The report titled ‘We might call you in at any time’: Free speech under threat in Iraq, examined 33 cases involving 21 activists and 14 journalists who reportedly suffered attacks, 13 cases related to the support of protest activities over social media and seven cases involving coverage of government corruption on mainstream or social media.

One case detailed in the report was that of Haitham Sulaiman, a 48-year-old protest movement organiser who in a Facebook post on April 6 called on the governor of Muthana, a province in southern Iraq, to investigate corruption allegations in the state health department linked to the purchase of coronavirus masks.

“He was arrested on April 10, beaten, and forced to sign a document stating that the United States had bankrolled the protest movement,” the report stated.

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