HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH The Internet In The Mideast And North Africa: Free Expression and Censorship
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Iraq is the only country in West Asia that has no Internet connection at all. In a letter to Human Rights Watch, Iraq's Ambassador to the United Nations Nizar Hamdoon blamed this state of affairs on damage to the telecommunications infrastructure inflicted during the Gulf War and to the U.N. sanctions(76) that restrict imports of spare parts for this sector. He suggested that but for these foreign obstacles, the government of Iraq would be pursuing a pro-Internet policy. In his letter, the ambassador affirmed that Iraq's constitutional guarantees of freedom of opinion encompass the right to receive and disseminate information online, "in conformity with the aims of the constitution and within the limits of the Law." He added that the state "shall endeavor to provide the facilities needed for the exercise of this freedom."(77)

However, given Iraq's intolerance of any kind of political dissent or criticism, it is hardly surprising that it reportedly prohibits unauthorized use of modems, which are a prerequisite for going online.(78)

The official press has been of two minds about the Internet, denouncing it as "one of the American means to enter every house in the world" while covering it favorably elsewhere.(79) Iraqi authorities have mounted web sites to disseminate official information. In April 1999 the Iraqi News Agency (INA) launched an Arabic and English site, <>. The following month, az-Zawra became the first Iraqi newspaper to launch an online edition, hosting it on a web site based in Jordan, <>. Iraq's mission to the United Nations has long had a site of its own, <>.

Despite the damage inflicted on the country's infrastructure during the Gulf War and the ensuing sanctions, the government of Iraq could set up some sort of Internet link for its citizens if it had the will to do so, according to telecommunications experts. In Sulaymaniyeh, a northern city that is controlled by a Kurdish faction, beyond the reach of President Saddam Hussein's security forces, Internet access has been established using a small satellite dish. The local university connects to the Internet via that link.(80)

The sanctions regime has contributed to a drastic drop in Iraq's standard of living, health care, and education and set back its technological advancement. For many ordinary Iraqis, the hardships of daily survival have no doubt made Internet access seem a remote luxury. In addition, the U.N. sanctions regime has restricted the import of computers and peripherals, although the Security Council's sanctions committee has approved some purchases of computers for schools, and computer equipment is smuggled into the country and sold openly.(81)

The lack of Internet access is most regrettable at a time when Iraqis feel more cut off than ever from the outside world. The isolation and intellectual deprivation would no doubt be mitigated if Iraqis had given the opportunity to communicate inexpensively via e-mail and obtain from the World Wide Web and other online sources materials and information that is absent in their libraries and newsstands.

Iraq's opposition movements and parties in exile, as well as the Kurdish political parties that operate in the north of the country beyond Baghdad's control, maintain web sites. In addition, members of the Iraqi diaspora have created a cultural web site, <>, that bills itself as "a small effort towards bringing Iraqis scattered around the globe, to one place, to share ideas, discuss Iraqi concerns, meet old friends, make new ones or simply...just to hang out!"(82)

76. In response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the Security Council prohibited all Iraqi exports and all imports except essential humanitarian items. U.N.S.C. resolution 687 (1991) conditioned the lifting of this embargo on a determination by the Security Council that the Iraqi government had complied with demands made in the resolution, including the destruction of its weapons of mass destruction and payment of reparations to Kuwait. Since 1995, the Security Council has allowed Iraq to export oil and use the proceeds to purchase humanitarian supplies, the selection and distribution of which is under U.N. supervision.

77. Letter to Human Rights Watch from Nizar Hamdoon, the Permanent Representative of Iraq to the United Nations, June 1, 1998.

78. Josh Friedman, a reporter for the Long Island, New York-based Newsday, told Human Rights Watch that when he and two other foreign journalists entered Iraq by land from Jordan in December 1998, Iraqi customs agents asked each one if he was carrying modems or satellite phones. They denied having modems. They were obliged to pay a fee of U.S. $300 for each satellite phone, which the agents then sealed with copper wire ostensibly to prevent their use except inside the press center of the Ministry of Communications in Baghdad. Telephone interview, January 11, 1999.

79. For examples of Iraqi press commentary on the Internet, see the Mosaic Group, The Global Diffusion of the Internet Project: An Initial Inductive Study, March 1998, pp. 182-183, <>.

80. Telephone interview with Barham Saleh, Washington representative of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, February 23, 1999.

81. See Polly Sprenger, "Least Connected Nation Status, Wired News Online, December 17, 1998, <>, and Josh Friedman, "The Baghdad Marketplace: Despite Embargo, Smugglers Keep Rich Iraqis Supplied," Newsday, January 4, 1999, p. A14.

82. Lisa Napoli, "Iraqi Exiles Reach for Home on Web Site," New York Times, February 20, 1997.

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Human Rights Watch