Guest post by Jacky Sutton
On January 22nd 2013, the long-running campaign against the draft Iraqi Cyber Crimes law finally bore fruit: the Iraqi Speaker of the House approved a request to the Parliamentary Committee for Media and Culture to permanently revoke the proposed legislation.
The decision is a victory for Iraqi civil society activists following months of public protests and intense negotiations with policymakers.
The draft Cyber Crime law, along with the ratified Journalist’s Rights Law, and the proposed Freedom of Expression and Association Law and Political Parties Law, together formed what the Center for Law and Democracy characterized in a 2011 report [PDF] as “an increasingly repressive legal net.”
In August 2011, the Iraqi Parliament passed the Journalists’ Rights Law (formerly the draft Journalists’ Protection Law), which imposed restrictions on who could be considered a journalist. Its passage was seen as both a blow to Iraq’s emerging independent media, and an indication that the country’s nascent civil society was too fractured to be effective in the face of political opportunism, corruption, and intimidation.
However, two year-long battle against the Orwellian Journalists’ Law had provided valuable lessons learned. The very title, “Journalists’ Protection Law,” was intended to give the impression this was a progressive piece of legislation that would provide invaluable support to Iraq’s nascent and beleagured independent media sector. When the Cyber Crimes Law emerged, Iraqis knew to look beyond ‘cyber crimes’ to understand the human rights implications of the proposed legislation.
The draft Cyber Crimes Law first surfaced in mid-2011: although its provenance remains uncertain, it was believed to have been drafted by the Prime Minister’s Office. It was leaked while in draft form and translated into English by IREX, an international media freedom NGO, and distributed to local and international organizations for further scrutiny and analysis.
By late 2012 the draft had been denounced by at least 44 international advocacy organizations and was the subject of detailed reports by the Center for Law and Democracy [PDF], Access Now [PDF], Human Rights Watch, Article 19 [PDF], the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters sans Frontiers. Inside the country courageous individuals and NGOs such as the Iraqi Network for Social Media and the Society for Defending Press Freedom campaigned tirelessly through a mixture of blogs, reports, educational seminars and meetings.
Those who supported the law argued that it provided protection against terrorism and fraud, although existing laws (not tied to technology) already provide adequate sanctioning powers. Others argued for protection against irreligion and pornography. And yet others just followed a party line.
In fact, the law was technically flawed and was described as more theatre than policy. Under the draft law, ‘misrepresentation’ in the form of pseudonyms was forbidden; had the law been passed, it would have criminalized an entire generation in a country where almost everyone uses pseudonymous email accounts. and this form of electronic misrepresentation was forbidden under the draft law. Under Article 3, the law further criminalized using a computer to commit crimes against the country’s “unity,” “politics,” and “interests.” There are more than 2.6 million Facebook users in Iraq and many sites are used for local campaigns and political forums–all speech potentially criminal under the draft law.
The withdrawal of this law is a major success, but freedom of expression and conscience in Iraq is far from guaranteed. The next step is for civil society to campaign for a right to information law, in order to guarantee Iraqi citizens have access to critical information about their elected officials, governance, and national resources. Civil society and media organizations should press for the Parliament to rescind the Journalists’ Rights Law, revoke the draft Freedom of Expression and Association Law, and redraft the draft Political Parties Law.
This week’s victory is an indication that Iraq’s young people will be a force for change in the region. Tech-savvy and angry, they are tired of empty promises and venal politicians: with three elections on the horizon over the next 12 months Iraq’s increasingly forceful digital space is set to be an interesting and vibrant venue for change.
Jacky Sutton is a ICT law and development expert. She spent 10 years in Iraq working with UNDP and IREX on media development, and through IREX was engaged in the fight against the Iraqi Cybercrime Bill. She is currently working with the Iraqi election commission to promote transparency and accountability in electoral processes.