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Forty-four IFEX members and partners call proposed cyber crimes law a setback to free speech

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - The following is an open letter initiated by Access Now and ARTICLE 19 and signed by 44 international organisations regarding Iraq's proposed Information Technology Crimes law, which has already gone through a first reading in the Iraqi Parliament, and will come to vote in the Iraq Council of Representatives in April:

5 April 2012

To: The Iraqi Council of Representatives
Iraqi Ministry of Communication
Baghdad, Republic of Iraq
iraqimoc (@)
cc. Mr. Bahaa Al-A'arajy, Chair
Legal Committee of the Iraqi Parliament (legal (@)

Iraq has made great efforts to develop the institutions of democracy. However, the proposed Information Technology Crimes legislation poses a significant setback to the fundamental freedoms necessary for the evolution of free speech, a vibrant press, and a robust economy. The proposed legislation puts online actors from nearly every sector, including IT, finance, corporations, the public sector, civil society, and the press, at risk of severe punishment.

The language of the Act is overly vague, overly broad, and overly harsh. The Act has the declared aim of "providing legal protection for the legal use of the computer hardware and the internet." Its impact, however, is to narrowly define legal behaviors online and empower authorities to restrict unwelcome speech and criticism. It prescribes unduly harsh sentences, including life in prison, for even minor infractions. The terms of the Act offer an invitation for violation of myriad human rights, and are in violation of international treaties to which Iraq is a signatory.

We write to you as representatives of freedom of expression organisations that are concerned about online censorship, surveillance and the protection of freedom of speech. It is in that context that we present to you the analysis of the proposed Act, undertaken by Access Now (Iraq's Information Technology Crimes Act of 2011: Vague, Overbroad, and Overly Harsh), and ARTICLE 19 (Iraq: Draft Informatics Crimes Law October 2011).

Our analysis exposes the law's narrow definition of lawful internet and computer use. It finds a pattern of problems, including:

• Vagueness and overbreadth in definitions of crimes: Crimes include violating "religious, moral, family, or social principles or values" or promoting terrorist "ideas."
• Harsh punishments without proportionality: Life imprisonment is imposed for using computers to “harm the reputation" or affect the "unity" of the country; "deal with the enemy" and expose the country to "dangers"; or publish information about human trafficking, or "mind altering substances” and the like.
• Lack of protection for the press, whistleblowers, and others: Criminal sanctions are imposed for libel and "insults" of others, without exception.
• Uncertainty and lack of privacy for website operators, ISPs, and citizen users: The Act makes ISPs and intermediaries liable, and mandates data be handed over to authorities on request.
• Excessive copyright enforcement: There are no fair use or other exceptions.

We understand that at present, Iraq lacks important legislation about the internet on the issues of e-commerce, intellectual property, identity theft, and data security. However, the rush to address these gaps enables surveillance and censorship, and threatens to set back the economic, political, and social development of the nation.

Whilst we understand governments have an obligation to protect the safety and security of their societies, governments also have an obligation to enable the aspirations and opportunities of their citizens. The proposed legislation creates an environment in which individuals and the private sector alike are bound by uncertainty and the threat of potential punishment, creating a chilling effect on free expression.

As civil society organisations, unconnected to any particular country, government, or religion, we encourage you to reconsider the proposed Act, and we ask that you respect the fundamental rights of your citizens, which is the basis for any true democracy.


IFEX members:

Adil Soz - International Foundation for Protection of Freedom of Speech
Arabic Network for Human Rights Information
Association of Caribbean Media Workers
Association of Independent Electronic Media
Bahrain Center for Human Rights
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
Cartoonists Rights Network International
Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility
Center for Media Studies & Peace Building
Centre for Independent Journalism - Malaysia
Committee to Protect Journalists
Egyptian Organization for Human Rights
Freedom House
Globe International Center
Hong Kong Journalists Association
Human Rights Network for Journalists - Uganda
Independent Journalism Center - Moldova
Index on Censorship
Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety
International Federation of Journalists
International Press Institute
Journaliste en danger
Maharat Foundation
Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance
Media Foundation for West Africa
Pacific Freedom Forum (PFF)
Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms - MADA
PEN Canada
Public Association "Journalists"
Reporters Without Borders
West African Journalists Association

Other signatories:

Access Now, Co-initiator
Bolo Bhi
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Free Press Unlimited
Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)
Human Rights Foundation
Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR)
Social Media Exchange

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