The Washington Post

Iraqi government signals it may retreat from controversial Web restriction

Iraqi Sunni Muslims protest in Falluja on Feb. 5. According to critics, a set of proposed laws before the Iraqi parliament would limit freedom of assembly and expression in the country. (REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani)

In a move that some are calling a potential breakthrough for Iraqi civil rights, Iraq’s Parliament appears to be backtracking on a controversial law that could limit free speech and criticism online.

The Information Technology Crimes Act, proposed last July, threatened life sentences and fines of up to $50,000 for using computers in ways that compromise “the independence of the state or its unity, integrity, safety.” The Centre for Law and Democracy, Human Rights Watch and Access Now, as well as a host of Iraqi journalists and bloggers, panned the bill as -- in Access Now's words -- “carte blanche for political repression.”

Hayder Hamzoz, an activist and blogger who campaigned against the law, told the Post in April that it amounted to state control of social media.

Now, the Iraqi parliament’s Culture and Media Committee seems to agree with him. A memo from that committee, dated Jan. 22 and translated by the Social Media Exchange, expresses concern about the “decline of freedom of speech” and asks that the bill be withdrawn. Peter Micek, a policy analyst at digital rights group Access Now, told the Daily Dot it appears to be legit.

While that’s good news for Iraqis, it could be better. The Information Technology Crimes Act is also one of a package of five proposed laws that, according to critics, sharply limit freedom of expression and assembly.

One of the bills in that package would require groups to obtain a permit for any type of gathering. Another, which passed in parliament in August 2011, restricts “who can be defined as a journalist and how one can practice and access information,” says a harsh analysis by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Rights groups say that Iraqis have seen their political and civil freedoms narrow in the year since American troops officially withdrew. This year, the country’s ratings fell sharply in Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World” report, an annual survey of global democracy and repression. The D.C.-based watchdog group gave Iraq a score of 6 (the worst is 7) for both political rights and civil liberties, blaming “the concentration of power by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and increasing pressure on the political opposition.”

Whether or not the government will address those problems in the future, some politicians do seem to take the the free-speech criticism seriously. An Arabic-language report on Iraq’s Akad News quotes culture committee Chairman Ali Alfahl promising to consult bloggers and other Internet users before drafting future legislation.

Caitlin Dewey is The Post’s digital culture critic. Follow her on Twitter @caitlindewey or subscribe to her daily newsletter on all things Internet. (

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