Speech under increasing pressure

New alliance aims to defend free expression in Iraq

BAGHDAD – The formation of the Alliance for the Defense of Freedom of Expression in Iraq was announced Sunday, marking a significant effort toward bolstering human rights and fostering dialogue with state institutions.

This coalition, comprising NGOs, lawmakers, civil society activists, and legal professionals, say it underlines the necessity of transitioning from confrontation to dialogue in resolving freedom of expression issues.

The alliance, spearheaded by the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights, aims to counteract what it perceives as threats to the freedom of expression safeguarded by Article 38 of the Iraqi constitution and international agreements to which Iraq is a party. Article 38 reads: “The State shall guarantee in a way that does not violate public order and morality: A. Freedom of expression using all means. B. Freedom of press, printing, advertisement, media and publication. C. Freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration, and this shall be regulated by law.”

Their statement highlights concerns over proposed legislation on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, which, they fear, could regress Iraq to governance models reminiscent of pre-2003. The group advocates for political forces and the Iraqi Parliament to engage with civil society, uphold constitutional and international guarantees of free speech, and cease any legislation that might infringe upon these freedoms.

Rahman Gharib, Coordinator at the Metro Centre for Press Freedoms and present at the launch, emphasized the sacred nature of freedom of expression and its intrinsic link to the freedom of demonstration. Gharib criticized the draft law on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, highlighting its clash to both Article 38 and international standards of freedom of expression. “Most of the political forces present in the Iraqi parliament are not willing to uphold freedom of expression, and the October Revolution is a prime example of this,” Gharib noted.

He is referencing the 2019 mass protests in Iraq, marked by demands for political reform and met with a severe government crackdown.

The alliance specifically opposes legislative efforts that threaten freedom of expression. It calls for a shift “from mechanisms of hostility and exclusion to mechanisms of dialogue, discussion, and finding common ground,” underscoring the critical role of dialogue in achieving sustainable reforms.

Recent incidents of harassment, intimidation, and violence against journalists, activists, and critics in Iraq further illuminate the urgency. The Iraqi Penal Code, with its outdated criminal defamation provisions, continues to stifle dissent.

The closure of media outlets and the assassination of activists have raised alarms about the state’s capacity to defend rights of criticism and dissent.

Moreover, legislation like the Higher Education Accreditation Law and the Combating Cybercrimes Bill has faced criticism for potentially curtailing free speech further. Despite these challenges, efforts to amend laws affecting freedom of expression face significant obstacles, with both judiciary and parliament showing reluctance to enact reforms.

Gharib’s remarks reflect the broader sentiment of the newly formed alliance, which underscores the “short-term goals include confronting any future legislative projects that threaten or restrict freedom of expression in Iraq.”

Human Rights Watch and other organizations have called on Iraqi authorities to reform laws that unduly restrict freedom of speech, suggesting that criminal defamation charges be replaced with civil law and that statutes be aligned with international norms.