Last week the new Iraqi Parliament tabled a draft of the country’s Law on Freedom of Expression, Assembly, and Peaceful Demonstration for discussion. The law had previously been introduced by the government led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – and it had failed to pass because, as so many local activists, journalists and human rights advocates pointed out, there are actually a lot of problems with it. Despite all the objections, al-Maliki refused to make any amendments to the law and Parliament did not pass it.
So it has fallen to the new government, headed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, to work on the law, despite the fact that it has already angered many locals and the fact that al-Abadi’s government is supposed to be doing things differently.
The parts of the Law on the Freedom of Expression of Opinion, Assembly, and Peaceful Demonstration that many activists object to include the amount of information required by authorities from prospective protest organisers and the restrictions it places on meetings.
The law says that public meetings and demonstrations are possible if those organizing them notify the authorities five days in advance and provide information as to where and when the meeting will be held, its purpose and the names of the organisers. Those attending the meeting may not “violate public order or the morals of the media”. Additionally these meetings and demonstrations may not be held before 7am or after 10pm.
“The current law is full of restrictions on public freedoms and it only serves the government and government officials,” says Ibrahim al-Siraji, head of the Iraqi Journalists' Rights' Defence Association. “It prevents people from expressing opinions without fear.”
In fact, al-Siraji, added, he was surprised to see that this law which was introduced by the previous government and which had proven incredibly unpopular, was even being discussed by the new government.
Another part of the law states that “propaganda to incite war, acts of terrorism, ethnic, racial, religious and sectarian hatred, is banned as is the slandering and undermining of religions, sects or their adherents”.
It’s a great principle, says one local civil society activist, Hamid al-Rubaie, but the problem lies in the loose wording. This makes it possible to interpret the paragraph any way you want.
“Most of our laws, and even the Iraqi Constitution itself, lack clarity,” al-Rubaie told NIQASH. “Their paragraphs are very generalist so most of them contain loopholes that allow them to be violated. And we don’t want this law to serve the government or officialdom,” he concluded.
One of the big problems, many opponents of the current law suggest, is the crisis Iraq is facing. It is extremely difficult to pass a law on freedom of expression under such unstable conditions. Politicians will be tempted to write a law that serves their own interests best and they may say that they’ve had to do this because of the exceptional situation.
It might be a good idea to postpone it, suggests Adnan al-Danbous, a prominent member of the Iraqiya bloc. The law could be re-written after more consultations with competent human rights and legal associations.
“Parliament should not rush this law through,” he says. “After all, we all know one of the main reasons behind this security crisis is the reluctance of the government to listen to popular demonstrations in Anbar which lasted more than a year and eventually saw demonstrators resort to violence.”
Another of the objections that many critics have to the current law involves the penalties it suggests are appropriate. Some of the punishments even date back to Saddam Hussein’s rule. Anyone who violates the law is supposed to be punished according to a section of the penal code adopted during Saddam Hussein’s time in power; it involves up to ten years in prison and millions of Iraqi dinars worth of financial penalties.
However the fact that the law was not passed quickly last week is seen as a positive sign by many, and one that seems in harmony with the new Iraqi government’s generally more conciliatory stance.
The Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights says they will be the next to consult on the law. “The draft law is unlikely to remain in its current formulation,” confirms MP Ashwaq al-Jaf, who is a member of the Committee. “We have agreed to look at all the objections to the law and we are going to hold meetings with civil society organisations and activists to get their opinions on the law before Parliament passes it.”