Geneva - Iraqi authorities’ detention and conviction of several social media content creators on vague charges that do not justify the restriction of natural rights is extremely concerning, said Euro-Med Monitor in a statement.

Iraq’s judiciary recently sentenced six Iraqi content creators to prison terms ranging from six months to two years, and is investigating eight others for “offending morals and public decency, as well as depravement”. The Iraqi Ministry of Interior launched an electronic platform on 10 January dedicated to receiving reports about content it characterises as offensive to public decency, i.e. which conveys negative messages that undermine modesty and destabilise society; the ministry later announced on 16 January the formation of a committee to monitor social media, combat “low-brow” content, and bring creators to justice. The ministry stated that “the judiciary endorsed the proposal of security services”, and claimed in a press conference to have already received about 96,000 reports of low-brow content.

In an interview with the country’s official news agency, Judge Amer Hassan of the Third Karkh Investigation Court—which specialises in publishing and media issues—stated that the court is working with the Ministry of Interior, which monitors cases of suspected violations through its governmental platform before referring them to the Karkh Investigation Court. The Karkh Misdemeanor Court has issued two sentences under this mechanism, the first of which sentences YouTube content creator Hassan Sajma to two years in prison, and the second of which sentences TikTok creator Ghufran Sawadi (known as “Umm Fahd”) to six months in prison, after convicting them both of “publishing several films and videos that include obscene and indecent statements and displaying them to the public through social media platforms”.

   Even if authorities insisted on classifying the content as “offensive to public morals”, the sentences were handed down to the convicts following a trial marred with legal irregularities   

The Euro-Med Monitor team reviewed content published by both Sajma and Sawadi separately and found no grounds for indictment, as the content they each published did not exceed the limits of their rights to freedom of opinion, expression, and publication. Sajma was a street broadcaster, interviewing people on the street and asking them personal questions about their lives, while “Umm Fahd” published video clips depicting her daily life and routine.

Before the start of the government campaign, Sajma announced on 5 January that he had deleted all of the videos he had previously published in response to followers’ demands. However, this did not stop judicial authorities from convicting him, despite Hassan’s statements that the government encourages apologies and deletion of offensive content and calls on all bloggers and celebrities to review and delete any content that is offensive to morals and public decency.

Even if authorities insisted on classifying the content as “offensive to public morals”, the sentences were handed down to the convicts following a trial marred with legal irregularities. Section Three of the Iraqi Penal Code states in paragraph 403 that: “Any person who produces, imports, publishes, possesses, obtains or translates a book, printed or other written material, drawing, picture, film, symbol or another thing that violates the public integrity or decency with intent to exploit or distribute such material is punishable by a period of detention not exceeding 2 years plus a fine not exceeding 200 dinars or by one of those penalties.

“The same penalty applies to any person who advertises such material or displays it in public or sells, hires or offers it for sale or hire even though it is not in public or to any person who distributes or submits it for distribution by any means. If the offence is committed with intent to deprave, it is considered to be an aggravating circumstance,” continues the paragraph.

According to Omar Alajlouni, a legal researcher at Euro-Med Monitor: “Paragraph 403 of the Iraqi Penal Code does not address electronic publication, and instead focuses solely on images of the acts that constitute this crime. In addition, the paragraph was enacted in 1969 and has not been updated since; we see in its text that the criminalisation of behaviours is based on vague terms like ‘public integrity and decency’ which are broad in nature and can be assessed and interpreted in very disparate ways, depending on different factors and circumstances. Furthermore, the formation of the governmental platform is not based on solid legal ground, as the law on which the platform is based did not address electronic content or censorship.”

Euro-Med Monitor expressed concern that this campaign may extend to restricting public freedoms in the country, criminalising individuals’ criticism of officials or state institutions and legitimising the trial of political activists, particularly in light of directives issued earlier this month by the President of the Supreme Judicial Council in Iraq to judicial authorities. These directives require “strict legal measures” against anyone who publishes content that offends public decency and constitutes immoral practices (in addition to content which is deemed deliberately abusive) in violation of the law in such a way that public deterrence is guaranteed.

The government campaign on censoring electronic content and the method being used to collect data reinforces the constant pressure on Iraqis to censor themselves—keeping them consistently anxious and fearful of being prosecuted for sharing their opinions in public affairs—not to mention introduces the probability of the near-future use of such a method to settle scores with political opponents, especially now that the campaign has expanded to include offending state institutions.

Iraqi authorities must rescind all prison sentences imposed on content creators, cease pursuing them and unjustifiably restricting their freedoms, and refrain from using the law to violate the rights guaranteed to individuals. The authorities must respect the right of individuals to freedom of opinion, expression, and publication, and refrain from taking any action that may undermine their freedoms and criminalise their exercise of their natural rights.