Why we need to protect free speech online

07-06-2022 08:11

Ruwayda Mustafah

A Kurdish politician once told me the root of all evil in Kurdistan is social media, and I think this is a shared view among politicians, but for different reasons. You see, the main political parties in the past were not able to hear the voices of their constituents as loudly as they do today. If anything, social media has facilitated an unrestricted platform where individuals, regardless of their socioeconomic background are able to have a voice, and this is not evil. This is why we should always fight back against those who wish to curtail free speech because, without this fundamental freedom, the public is left to the whims of political entities.

Yesterday, the University of Garmian filed a lawsuit against four lecturers for critical posts on Facebook. The teachers’ posts include highlighting institutional mismanagement and salary delays. This sets a dangerous precedent, and it sends the message that voicing criticism against institutional failures will risk the security of your job.

The reason the University of Garmian is able to punish its own lecturers and restrict their free speech is that the ruling political parties jointly passed legislation, which undermined the journalism law in the Kurdistan Region. The ‘misuse of communication tools’ bill criminalizes those who “misuse” social networking platforms, but in reality, this legislation has been used to target journalists, dissidents, and those who are critical of the status quo. It directly contradicts the journalism law, which sought to protect free speech in the region.

The United Kingdom passed the online safety bill recently, which is a comprehensive proposal that seeks to protect children and reduce harmful content such as abuse, harassment, or those encouraging self-harm and eating disorders. However, freedom of expression is still protected because the measures put in place are about ensuring the safety of users and holding online platforms accountable for failing to protect the public. The same cannot be said for the Kurdistan Region because the legislation on misuse of social media appears to target critical voices, as opposed to ending harassment online.

Striking a balance between protecting users online and ensuring freedom of speech is not undermined is tricky in developing regions, particularly in Kurdistan Region, which has a questionable track record in relation to free speech. When lecturers face lawsuits, they do not have safety nets or institutions that can fight for their rights — leaving them vulnerable.

When it comes to conservatives and extremists who are against equality and women’s rights, they appear to have the freedom to perpetuate antagonistic rhetoric without repercussions. Their statements demonizing equality advocates are acceptable because they do not harm or question the status quo — they merely seek to further harm and limit women’s empowerment. Now, while these groups of individuals propagate the illusion that it is the Kurdish culture they are protecting, it is clear that they only seek to preserve archaic cultural attitudes and practices.

These concerns can only be remedied when there exists a political will to protect freedom of expression, and when political parties establish manifestos with policies, visions, and aspirations toward building a developed region that looks to the future, and not quick fixes for erasing their failures.