In one social media clip, a young Iraqi woman dances at a national soccer tournament. in another, she dances at her son’s birthday party.

Another post shows a Baghdad fashionista modeling clothes, including clothing based on the Iraqi army uniform.

Fourth Features a young man in a black sweatshirt and pants interviewing a young woman, also dressed in black, about her private life. It is one of several clips he has taken of young men dressed in appropriate clothing, which conservative Iraqis view as provocative.

A few months ago, the people featured in these clips were stars of Iraq’s growing social media scene. Not anymore.

They have been largely silenced by being tried, convicted and sentenced to time in Iraq’s overcrowded prison system under new Home Office rules against “indecent” or “immoral” content on social media.

This crackdown on social media is relatively new, but is of a piece with a wider campaign to silence, sideline or co-opt those who publicly question or criticize the government.

That wider effort traces its roots to the months of demonstrations in 2019 and 2020, when young Iraqis poured into the streets demanding an end to corruption, a reduction of Iranian influence in Iraq and a new era of openness. These demonstrations later forced the resignation of the prime minister, who was supported by Iran-linked parties in the government.

Given the comparative calm in Iraq today, the intensifying crackdown on social media and speech more broadly may seem unexpected. Bombings, rocket attacks and gunfire are rare in most of the country. The cells of Islamic State that exist are small and seem more intent on their own survival than on widespread destruction.

However, Iraq’s coalition government was increasingly controlled by political parties with links to Iran.

Defenders of human rights and democracy say that to prevent any repeat of the disorder that occurred four years ago, the government is trying to limit independent voices in the public square, using lawsuits, arrests, online harassment, threats and sometimes kidnapping or murder. It is often unclear exactly which actions violate public order and morality, according to most of the US State Department. recent report on human rights, as well as a a report by Human Rights Watch and other free speech and human rights organizations.

Um Fahad, the social media influencer who danced on her son’s birthday, said she still doesn’t understand why she was arrested and jailed. “The judge asked me why I was dancing and showing part of my chest,” she said in an interview after her release from prison.

Dr. Ali al-Bayati, a former member of the Iraqi Human Rights Commission who now lives outside Iraq because of lawsuits and threats against him, said: “The idea is to silence any criticism, anything that can encourage the public to change the public. attitude and anything that could escalate a public disturbance in the future.”

The commission itself was largely hushed up. In 2021, the federal court stripped commissioners of their immunity, making them vulnerable to financially crippling lawsuits by any politician, government department or party. This has hampered the commission’s efforts to hold Iraqi government officials or institutions accountable for human rights violations under Iraqi and international law.

With this critical watchdog neutered, politicians, parties and people connected to religious organizations have refined their efforts to reduce public criticism of the government and government figures, creating an atmosphere that reinforces self-censorship.

For its part, the Iraqi government says that journalists and democratic organizations in the country have much more freedom than was the case under Saddam Hussein, when the press was completely controlled by the government. Officials point out precisely that when government critics are prosecuted in court, in the majority of cases they eventually prevail. However, this does not take into account that detention, even if the person is released or the case is dropped, can harm a person’s livelihood or family.

“Our journalists can go anywhere, and most of them respect our society and they have the right to speak,” said Saad Ma’an, who heads the Interior Ministry’s new committee that reviews social media for impermissible content.

The new rules on social media went into effect in January, when the ministry set up a platform that allows Iraqis to denounce or report any content that “violates public morality, contains negative and indecent messages and undermines social stability.”

So far, Mr. Ma’an said, the ministry has received more than 150,000 complaints. Of those, 14 people were charged with publishing “indecent” or “immoral” content on social media, and of those eight were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six months to two years. Often the terms are reduced on appeal. Many complaints remain under investigation.

Mr Ma’an said the new rules were meant to “protect our families”. He added: “There is a right to speak on social networks, on Facebook, on Tik Tok, but there is a line. You cannot cross that line.”

He used as examples two clips in which two different female social media influencers hugged their young sons and talked suggestively about love; one was the same couturier who modeled the military uniform.

Although Iraq’s popular social media influencers have received the most attention recently, the campaign has been at least as harsh against those who criticize Iraqi government officials.

Among them is Mohammed Nena, a political researcher and writer who, during the campaign for the office of prime minister, said in both essays and on television that the future prime minister lacked strategic vision and would be held hostage by the Shiite parties with ties to Iran, which supported him Mr. Nena was prosecuted for defamation of the prime minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, and arrested on March 25. Released on bail, he awaits trial.

Haider Hamdani, a journalist in southern Iraq who covers corruption, was acquitted in eight cases, but eight others are still pending. One was brought this spring by the governor of Basra, who offered to drop the case if Mr. Hamdani apologized and denied what he had written.

Mr. Hamdani, who has written about corruption in the purchase of heavy machinery and ambulances in Basra and named those who benefited, refused. He was arrested, and the judge set bail at 50 million Iraqi dinars, about $37,600. He receives threatening phone calls almost every day, he said. “I get anonymous messages saying, ‘Shut up, leave these subjects alone or your life will be in danger, and you will have children.’

Many of the legal actions depend on the 1 of Iraq969 penal code, according to lawyers familiar with the cases, including a criminal ban on “insulting another person” or “hurting his feelings” as well as laws against “insulting” various government officials or entities. The Iraqi Constitutionwritten in 2005 with Western input, guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press but also says that any public expression should not “violate public order and morality”, and t does not define those expressions.

Dissent was also suppressed by more violent methods, including kidnappings, beatings and killings, carried out by masked men driving civilian vehicles. The government often says they are rogue groups posing as militias, while the State Department report calls them “paramilitary militias.”

In February, Jassim al-Asadi, a well-known activist for the Iraqi marshes, which are part of UNESCO World Heritage Site, said he was kidnapped by an armed group and tortured after saying that Turkey and Iran were withholding water needed to keep the marshes alive. “I thought I was going to be killed,” he said. “If it wasn’t for my relatives and my tribe and the people who spoke for me, I would have died.”

The government never filed charges in his abduction.

The defenders of democracy, who want big changes in the government, are discouraged. They say that real protest has become impossible, both because of the new threats and because of the government’s sidelining of the political party of the Shia nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, which was the only serious challenge to the current government coalition.

“There is no leadership now,” said Shuja al-Khafaji, 33, who was one of many young people helping to lead the opposition to the government four years ago, and was kidnapped and held for a day or more by an armed group that. did not identify himself.

“Democracy in Iraq now is like other Arab countries,” he said, “that is, very limited. You can’t ask about certain things without someone saying it’s an insult and filing a lawsuit.”

Falih Hassan and Jaafar al-Waely contributed reporting from Baghdad.

By admin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *