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In a win for online freedom in Iraq, in February the Iraqi parliament said it will stop pushing forward a cybercrimes draft law until after it is amended so that it protects rather than infringes upon free speech.

As it stood, the law would have allowed Iraqi authorities to prosecute anyone for any social media or online post that they didn’t like by arbitrarily deeming the content a threat to governmental, social, or religious interests.

Human Rights Watch analyzed the bill and warned about its potential to punish dissent in civil society. The bill proposed overbroad restrictions to electronic communications. It also criminalized a wide range of vaguely defined activities while including provisions for prosecuting anyone who allegedly undermines the country’s “supreme economic, political, military, or security interests.” The harsh punishments the law imposes, including exorbitant fines and minimum prison sentences, could also have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.

A draft of the law failed to pass in 2011 and was reintroduced to parliament in 2019 amidst a national crackdown on free speech and peaceful dissent. It was discussed in November of 2020 before being tabled in December.

Human Rights Watch has consistently opposed the bill for its potential to suppress dissent. In June of 2020 Human Rights Watch published a report on the various laws Iraq’s government uses to crack down on critical voices. It documented the detention and ill-treatment of journalists and activists, who felt the government had targeted them to intimidate other critics.

Prosecutions of critics, journalists, and activists under Iraq’s problematic defamation and incitement laws have increased dramatically during the Covid-19 pandemic, and this new law would only make it worse. The government has yet to submit an amended version of the law to parliament, and Human Rights Watch will continue to monitor this and all other initiatives aimed at stifling free speech, which is essential to keep the public informed and safe.

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