Iraq cracks down on social media authorities deem ‘inappropriate’; Does the campaign cover Kurdistan?

14-03-2023 01:11

Peregraf- Ghamgin Mohammed

Until a month ago, videos posted by a woman known online as "Iraq's honey" attracted thousands of views, but soon they will be gone.

"Iraq’s honey," nicknamed Nur Hussam, is a model and social media influencer who had posted dozens of videos showing her scantily clad and using words and behavior that clash with Iraq’s conservative societal values. One video showed her wearing a military uniform displaying an officer’s rank.

On February 12, the Court of Appeals in Baghdad sentenced her to two years in prison after upholding a conviction of violating public morality, a charge brought by the public prosecutor. It is part of a larger campaign launched by the federal Ministry of Interior to crack down on inappropriate conduct online, which some of her defenders have referred to as a witch hunt.

"Because people can register themselves with fake names and photos on social media, it is easy to violate social norms, culture, and public etiquette. We see this every day. People show their true character, but do not have to show their face for society," Choman Ahmad, a social researcher, told Peregraf.

The ministry's campaign began under the pretext of confronting "bad, low-level, and strange content posts to society and social traditions." But it is not based on a specific law. Instead, it uses statutes already in the Iraqi Penal Code, even though they were passed before the advent of social media.

The Iraqi government has a committee to monitor social media posts and has set up a website to receive complaints from the public. Dozens of people have faced legal questioning as part of the campaign and many of them have deleted their earlier posts, making video apologies instead as a way to avoid punishment.

This situation is the same across all of Iraq’s governorates and the Kurdistan Region. As part of an investigation into the phenomenon, Peregraf tracked social media posts, particularly on Tik Tok. Many include slanderous comments, speech that is inappropriate for children and families, and violent behavior.

"Any inappropriate subjects, photographs, or videos that are posted on social media related to public morality, religious holiness, and the sanctity of the community will be investigated and a complaint filed, so that the person can be punished according to the law," Mohammed Rekani, a member of the Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG) public prosecutor office, told Peregraf.

He added that this is not a new phenomenon, with people brought before the court for similar reasons in the past.

In federal Iraq, the authorities use Article 403 of the Penal Code to charge people accused using a video, photo, or text to violate public traditions and customs or importing a book for the same purpose. A conviction comes with a maximum of two years in prison and a fine.

In the Kurdistan Region, it is the 2008 Communications Device Misuse Law (Law 6) that is employed to punish people who use social media to swear, insult, defame, and make accusations. It is a criminal statute and can carry prison sentences of between six months and five years in prison and a fine of between 1 million and 5 million Iraqi dinars ($690 to $3,445).

"It is not the concern of the KRG Ministry of Communications and Transportation if anyone publishes insults, uses inappropriate topics on social media, or publishes inappropriate photos and videos. It is the work of the prosecutor and the interior ministry," Dylan Rashad, spokesperson for communications ministry, told Peregraf.

In general, the KRG has not pursued such matters as aggressively as the federal government.

On February 8, the Baghdad Court of Criminal Justice sentenced two influencers to prison terms for engaging in inappropriate speech and violating community dignity, with Hassan Sajma receiving two years in prison and Ghafran Mahdi, known as "Fahdi’s Mom," getting six months. The same day, the Supreme Judicial Council issued a letter to all Iraqi courts calling for strict legal action in similar cases.

Rozhgar Ibrahim, a lawyer in the Kurdistan Region, explained to Peregraf that "those who do inappropriate things on social media and cause violations of public behavior will be punished under communications device misuse law, The punishment includes fine penalty and imprisonment. The type of punishment depends on the details of the case and the type of violation."

There are more than 25 million social media users across Iraq. The most popular platforms are TikTok, YouTube, and Facebook, according to the latest statistics from the Digital Media Center.

During its investigation, Peregraf found that children and older people are also posting what could be considered "low-level and inappropriate" posts on social media.

"In the past, prosecutors have asked us for clarification on some issues of public manners and we have sent them all the information we gathered," Shirwan Abdullah, director-general of printing and publishing at the KRG culture ministry, told Peregraf.

Abdullah stressed that no decisions or recommendations have been made by KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani about how to handle influencers. There had been a rumor that the prime minister’s office had banned media outlets from interviewing so-called "model girls." Several of these influencers were arrested last year on various charges, which added credence to the rumor.

In the Kurdistan Region, there is no mechanism that prevents the public from accessing inappropriate material online, but some companies have set up special packages that filter such content.

Rashad said that it is not the ministry’s job to police what people decide to watch privately, but added that "parents should take care of their children and be careful to not let them watch those who publish inappropriate things or speak about low-level things."

In recent years, debate over the issue has become more prevalent in mainstream media and the Kurdistan Parliament has opened the door to doing more legislatively, but legislation has not been passed.

"The draft law on organizing electronic media is ready. Its first reading has been made, but, because there was a big mistake, it was put on hold," Salma Fatih, head of the Kurdistan Parliament's cultural committee, told Peregraf.

Fatih added that the law would make "citizens freer" and argued that "the bill must be put into action and strictly monitored."

Ahmed, the social researcher, told Peregraf that it was everyone’s responsibility to do more to raise awareness about people who violate community norms.

"They will be prosecuted according to the law, so they don’t repeat it," he said.