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Iraqi draft law under fire over curbs on freedom of speech

Iraqi and Kurdish authorities under fire for 'restricting freedom of expression'
4 min read
04 March, 2024
The proposed legislation has been stalled in parliament for years due to significant objections from local and international rights groups.
Iraqi politicians assert that the law will bolster the government's authority. [Getty]

The Iraqi parliament faces criticism for its efforts to push forward a controversial draft law that human rights groups have accused will limit freedom of speech and assembly, while authorities in the Kurdistan region have levied fresh charges against journalists and activists recently released from detention.

The proposed legislation, which has been stalled in parliament for years due to significant objections from civil society groups and international rights organisations, includes clauses that curtail freedom of expression and impose heavy fines and penalties. Critics allege that these measures could be politically exploited by the ruling "Coordination Framework", which holds a majority in parliament.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) authorities freed Guhdar Zebari on 17 February after spending three and half years behind bars on charges of 'endangering national security'.

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In an interview with The New Arab following his release, Zebari revealed harrowing details of his ordeal. He recounted being subjected to physical assault, blindfolded, and coerced into confessing to unfounded charges. He endured six months of solitary confinement at the hands of the KRG security forces in Duhok province.

Ayhan Saeed, the representative of Duhok province prisoners, in a statement, a copy was sent to TNA, said that a court in Duhok has filed news charges against Omed Baroshki, a critical journalist, and several other journalists and activists.

Baroshki was sentenced in August 2020 with Sherwani and then released in February 2022. He was arrested by Kurdish security forces in Duhok on 20 July 2023 and freed later.

Amid discussions about emptying freedom of expression of its true content, politicians assert that the law will bolster the government's authority, which has recently intensified its campaigns against dissenting voices.

Two draft laws re-introduced to Iraq's parliament will seriously limit freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly in the country if passed. The re-introduced draft laws - one on freedom of expression and the other with the alleged aim of tackling cybercrime - came amid a crackdown on criticism of government figures, Amnesty International said in July 2023.

"There is a clear political push from the Coordination Framework forces to pass the law in its new format and name, which means emptying it of its content, " a member of the legal committee in the Iraqi Parliament requesting anonymity, told Al-Arabi Al-Jadeed, TNA's Arabic sister website.

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The MP pointed out that "The Coordination Framework now imposes its dominance on parliament in terms of the number of seats as the largest bloc, and the presence of Mohsen Al-Mandalawi at the head of parliament, who is among the leaders of the Framework, presents an opportunity for him to pass the laws he desires."

The Parliamentary Human Rights Committee is working on studying the draft law and making appropriate amendments.
"It was decided that the draft law would be named the Freedom of Assembly and Peaceful Protest," MP Zuheir al-Fatlawi, a human rights committee member, previously told the website. Hence, removing the term "Freedom of Expression" is alarming to Iraqi activists and journalists as freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Iraqi constitution, allowing citizens to express their opinions through all means and methods.

The Iraqi lawmaker confirmed that the bill "will be legislated shortly due to its importance" after the bill had been discussed in four workshops where civil society organisations had their notes.

On the other hand, Iraqi MP Zafir Al-Ani expressed astonishment at the repression of freedoms in Iraq, stating in a post on the X platform, "It is unreasonable for the authorities constitutionally responsible for protecting rights and preserving freedoms to be the same ones restricting the rights of opinion holders and violating the freedoms of citizens."

Meanwhile, Iraqi political analyst Mujahid Al-Ta'i warned against government coercion of opinion holders, stating in a post on X, previously known as Twitter, "The absence of a law regulating digital content and freedom of expression grants discretionary authority over dissenters and opinion holders," affirming that "there is a clear subordination among state institutions dominated by the Coordination Framework and its allies."