Iraqi bloggers halt move to restrict Internet freedom

The Iraqi Network for Social Media has achieved what few other likeminded networks in the Arab region could hope for: to influence government policy on cybercrime and media freedom

When Iraq’s parliament in mid 2012 took steps to pass a law on “cybercrime” that criminalises anyone who critisises the government on websites and in social media, members of the IMS-founded Iraqi Network for Social Media (INSM) took action.

Proposed IT law criminalises online government critics

If adopted, the new law would deem it a crime punishable by life imprisonment to use the internet to “harm the reputation of the country” or to broadcast “false or misleading facts” intended to “damage the national economy”. The proposed legislation also stipulated that “whoever violates principles, religious, moral, family, or social values or personal privacy through information networks or computers in any way” could be sentenced to a year in prison.

In response to the proposed law, Iraqi bloggers and social media users in (INSM) created a Facebook page tracking the law and opposition to it. INSM also convened a forum in the province of Diwaniya to bring together some 30 parliamentary officials, a number of judges, lawyers, bloggers and journalists to discuss the law.

As a result, the adoption of the law was put on hold.

“The key is to work with the authorities, not against them as we are both working to fight IT crime,” says Heyder Hamzoz, Iraqi blogger and coordinator of the INSM network.

“This way we can contribute to shaping IT laws. Together with lawyers and international organisations, we presented the authorities with arguments for why the proposed legislation limited media freedom and did not live up to international press freedom standards.”

The new IT law proposed by the government is thought to be a reaction to counter online criticism of authorities following demonstrations in Iraq in 2011 inspired by uprisings in neighbouring Arab region.

“Blog with me” campaign

Since over 60 Iraqi bloggers came together in Iraqi Kurdistan’s city of Sulimanyah in February 2012 to exchange experiences and tools and attend workshops, the Network has headed up the Iraq-wide  “Blog with me” campaign, which aims to inspire students and workers to use blogs in their studies or work. The campaign targeted 18 provinces in Iraq including Kurdistan, and has held 23 workshops for over 325 participants from both NGOs, academia and even government.

“Bloggers in Iraq write about their daily lives, but also comment on major events that affect their communities such as bombs,” says Heyder Hamzoz.

“Our workshops have helped bloggers to improve their content, visibility on the web and writing skills. We have also improved the link between traditional journalists and bloggers because at the end of the day we have the same goal – to write the truth.”

Blogging safely

The INSM also offers it members advice on digital security and the Iraqi laws around media and freedom of expression.

With Iraq ranking as one of the world’s most dangerous places to practice journalism and blog critically about government and certain social issues, security online is a factor that must be addressed by those who chose to express their opinions online.

“There is not much focus on bloggers in Iraq yet [internet penetration is low].”

“But one of the priorities of our blogging network is to check the facts of the content posted on our site by our members to ensure the content is truthful. In addition to this, bloggers are offered advice and support on content by lawyers at the IMS-supported Legal Protection Center which helps journalists and bloggers to decipher media law,” says Hayder Hamzoz.

The Iraq Network for Social Media hopes to host the 4th Regional Arab bloggers meeting in Bagdad in 2013. Stay posted on this though the IMS website.