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Iraqi civil society fights new freedom of expression bill

Civil pressure in Iraq has managed to thus far prevent the passing of the “freedom of expression and peaceful demonstration” draft law, which they argue would place tough new restrictions on civil freedoms.
Members of the newly elected Iraqi parliament attend a session at the Parliament headquarters in Baghdad July 1, 2014. The acting speaker of Iraq's newly elected parliament said no agreement had been reached on naming a new speaker and that the parliament now had no quorum.    REUTERS/Stringer (IRAQ - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR3WLLU

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraq's civil associations took action after the Iraqi parliament suddenly announced the inclusion of a draft law on freedom of expression and peaceful demonstration on its July 13 agenda. A leaked revision of the draft had contained several acts that restrict Iraqis' freedom of expression and peaceful protest.

The draft includes such tough punishments as a one-year minimum prison sentence for insulting a religious symbol or figure, and set difficult procedures for obtaining permits to protest. The protesters must apply for the permission six days before the event and can be denied for any reason. The would-be protesters' recourse is only to complain to the court, and the time-consuming procedures of the judicial system means the protest will not be allowed.

Notably, Article 38 of the Iraqi Constitution guarantees the freedom of the press and of expression, and also ensures peaceful demonstration, provided it be regulated by the law.

The draft led to protests among Iraqi civilians, as many Iraqis — including prominent bloggers — took to social media to express their disapproval with hashtags such as #NoToMuzzlingThePeople and #FreedomRepressionLaw.

On July 17, a number of civil society organizations made an alliance against the draft law and held a press conference at the headquarters of the Burj Babel for Media Development Organization to announce their rejection of the draft law and all its articles. The organizations formed an alliance to call for a July 18 protest in Liberation Square to declare their rejection of the draft law's severity because of its authoritative discourse. Dozens of activists and journalists participated in the protest.

In its July 13 session, the parliament decided to postpone the vote because of civil pressure on the draft law, and tasked committees dealing with culture, information, human rights, legislation and religious endowments to draft amendments to the bill.

The parliament had also listed on its July 16 agenda a draft law about cybercrime — the first version was drafted in 2006 by the Iraqi government. That draft law was also withdrawn under street pressure, because it contained proposals to restrict public freedoms on the internet. The draft law reappeared on the parliament's July 26 agenda after the anger in the street calmed slightly.

Zuhair Diaeddine, legal adviser to the Association for the Defense of Press Freedom in Iraq, told Al-Monitor that the proposed law “should not require a permit for the holding of a protest or stipulate a six-day notice before the holding of the protest. Also, articles overlapping with other laws should be removed, knowing that some of these laws are enacted while others are currently being drafted,” he said.

“Article 3 of the law is covered by the law of access to information, which is currently being drafted by the Council of Ministers’ Legal Department, while its punishments in the 'freedom of expression' draft is related to Iraqi Penal Code No. 111 of 1969 and must be discussed there,” he added. “The law was not drafted in a sophisticated way, and the drafting process can sometimes be disingenuous, as legislators use the term 'freedom of expression' when ironically the law is full of restrictions, harsh punishments and vague phrases.”

Diaeddine said his organization, the Association for the Defense of Press Freedom in Iraq, is working on the elimination of six outdated laws: the Iraqi Penal Code of 1969, Publications Act 206 of 1968, the law of the Ministry of Information of 2001, the law of censorship on movies and movies' scenarios and tapes and disks No. 64 of 1973, the law of the Journalists Syndicate of 1969 and Coalition Authority Order No. 14 of 2003, which covers prohibited media activity and gives the prime minister the authority to close any media outlet, confiscate its equipment and funds, and even imprison its staff. The association is also working to modify the Journalists' Rights Law.

Habib al-Torfi, a member of the Parliamentary Commission on Human Rights, told Al-Monitor that the amended draft must be “agreed upon by parliamentary committees and civil liberties and human rights organizations across Iraq.” He said, “This is in accordance with the democratic system and to ensure the freedom of Iraqis.”

Lawyer and civil activist Marwa Abdul Redha said, “The number of lawsuits filed against journalists, activists and bloggers is growing steadily due to the legal system inherited from the previous dictatorial regime and to the political class’ attempt to pass a new set of laws that support it.”

She said that the number of complaints registered against journalists this year has increased to 500 as of mid-July, while only 307 lawsuits were brought in 2015. Abdul Redha noted that passing the new law would lead to increased restrictions and sanctions on citizens in general.

Abdul Redha expressed contentment about the “maturity” of the civil society action, adding, “Had such action taken place before the passing of other laws, such as the Journalists' Rights Law, politicians would not have been able to tighten their grip on the street and muzzle the people.”

The parliament first introduced the freedom of expression and peaceful demonstration law in 2011, but faced objections from an alliance of organizations that demanded a chance to comment on the law in a session dedicated to the topic.

The parliament included the law again on its agenda in August 2015 to give it a second reading and vote on it after being amended, but it faced another wave of objections from civil liberties organizations. They held a press conference in conjunction with the Human Rights Commission within parliament to declare its refusal to vote on the draft, which the organizations had not reviewed at the time.

Thekra Sarsam, vice president of the Burj Babel for Media Development Organization and coordinator of the alliance of civil liberties organizations, told Al-Monitor that the organizations are trying to increase pressure on the government and parliament to "achieve what we want from this law.”

She added, “The allied organizations intend to set up an extended conference in one of the official halls of parliament in late July to extend invitations to several parliament members and inform them of their suggestions regarding the draft law.”

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