In mid-January, the Ministry of the Interior launched a web platform to denounce immoral content. In less than two months,  no less than 137,000 reports of “immoral content” had been made according to an anonymous source. Since the beginning of the year, a dozen bloggers and influencers have been arrested in Iraq for videos deemed indecent. 

Freedom of expression at stake

The Internet is under threat. Influencers on social networks now have to think twice before publishing content on Facebook, TikTok, YouTube or Instagram if they don’t want the police knocking on their door.

The hunt for “immoral content” is officially open, based on paragraph 403 of law 111 of the Iraqi Penal Code, which sentences two years of imprisonment to anyone who exploits or distributes material “in a way that violates the integrity or decency of the public“. The circumstances are considered aggravated “if the offense is committed with the intent to deprave”. There is no mention of social networks in the text, which is to be expected: the law dates from 1969 and its 1980 amended version is not taken into account.

This law could be used in a completely different way by the government to shut people’s mouths. there is room for interpretation as to how they want to apply the law. Of course, this is a danger to freedom of expression. The law must clearly define what is a crime and on what basis. Right now, it’s not clear“, lamented Ali Omar Gabou, the deputy governor of Mosul.

The turning point came in mid-January when the Ministry of the Interior launched a committee to monitor web content and to launch the Balagh denunciation platform. The authorities are advertising the site on YouTube, urging anyone to report content deemed to be unethical. One example is a video of two young Iraqi women accused of dishonoring the army. Wearing military jackets and leggings, they were filmed from behind walking and swaying.

One month after the launch of Balagh, in mid-February, the Ministry of the Interior was pleased with the success of its campaign. 96,000 items of content have been denounced as offensive and at least a dozen influencers active on TikTok, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook have been arrested. They include public figures, activists and models. Some were sentenced to prison terms, such as Hassan Sajmah (2 years) or Um Fahad (6 months), whose content was deemed obscene and whose words were considered indecent. Others were released after a warning, the deletion of their account or a public apology. This is the case of a tiktoker known for mimicking Americans with a coarse Texan accent, as he was forced to apologize.

Open war on influencers

Residents of Mosul, Khaled Ahmed, 49, and his son, Hamza Ahbate, 24, are two Iraqi celebrities on TikTok. The former has accumulated 3 million subscribers on various platforms, while the latter has 5 million subscribers on TikTok and more than 115 million “likes”. As true soulmates, they film their daily lives with an offbeat tone.

Khaled made a series of videos in which he caricatures the Iraqi way of cooking, which is known for always being done in large quantities. In one of his performances, we see him taking huge buckets and pouring them one after the other into traditional dishes, plunging his hands in and making jokes at the same time before finally delivering crudely prepared dishes in front of the camera. Hamza on his side, was spotted for his acting talents, which led to performing for the Iraqi film industry. He is particularly fond of dressing up and imitating characters from films and series such as Thomas Shelby in Peaky Blinders. He does hesitate either to parody Indian culture. Like this video in which one of his brothers plays the grieving cuckolded husband surprising his wife (played by Hamza) with her lover, before the scene ends in a traditional Bollywood dance. The father and son had even directed scenes in which the son played the infernal child and Khaled the overworked and violent father. Everything was thought out and shot in such a way as to make Internet users laugh.

But not everyone laughed at their humor. Khaled and Hamza were anonymously reported on Balagh before being arrested for 48 hours on February 9th. “Jealousy for our success”, explained the father. The two siblings benefited from a broad campaign of support on social networks before finally being released without charge. “The judge told us he had nothing against us”, Khaled said. The comedian explained he “just wanted to make people laugh, as they had become desperate after years of occupation of Mosul by the Islamic State”. As a Sunni muslim himself, he also almost lost his life: he still holds nineteen bullet scars on one leg and his left hand middle finger was amputated after he tried to tell the Iraqi army where jihadists were hiding, some 200 meters from his home. While pointing at the assailants, he found himself under enemy fire.

Be that as it may, Khaled Ahmed seems to have learned his lesson after his arrest and “supports this government campaign against videos that sully [Iraqi] culture“, while grabbing his mobile phone and showing us videos of girls with very loose clothing implying a “seductive tone” in their videos.  Was it fear or conviction that he changed? Khaled has now smoothed out his account by deleting the most offbeat videos from his profile while making much more serious cooking recipes and keeping a light-hearted tone. Inevitably, this has had an impact: his audience has plummeted. As for Hamza Abate, he now makes spiritual videos of his visit to Kerbala and Najaf, the holy Shiite city, with music to the glory of Imams Ali and Hussein in the background.

A divided opinion

In an attempt to get the pulse of public opinion in progressive environments, we went to interview clients of Baghdad’s trendy cafés in the historically Christian district of Karrada. Ridha Alwan is a crowded café at a street corner that attracts many young people. But even there, according to the people interviewed, the government’s campaign seems to have unanimous support. “Some bloggers have content that belittles Iraq and our culture“, explains Azar. In an effort to be nuanced, after several reminders, the 19-year-old Baghdadi finally admits that “there is no freedom of expression in Iraq“. For him, freedom of expression is far from acquired: “If I criticize an official, I will be threatened”. At the same table, 17-year-old Hussein, whose nose bandage betrays a recent plastic surgery operation, says he “supports the campaign” before explaining that “it would be better if prison sentences could only last a few days”.

Among the women present at the café, opinions are perhaps even sharper, when they agree to speak out. This is the case of Hyam, a 50-year-old Baghdadi journalist, who deplores the fact that “the courts have targeted people that should not have been“, but says she “supports the Balagh whistleblowing platform“. Her colleague, Nedjla, editor-in-chief of an Iraqi media, is very direct and highlights “the bad behavior of the new generation because of bad content“. She even wants to “thank the Ministry of the Interior for this magnificent campaign”. Raflaa, a 35-year-old pharmacist, stressed her support for this type of campaign and “the need to educate Iraqi society before calling for total freedom of expression“.  

These reactions come as no surprise to Pascale Warda, a French-Iraqi and former Minister for Immigration and Refugees (2004-2005) as well as president and co-founder of the Iraqi NGO Hammurabi Human Rights Organization : “By going from one extreme situation to another, Iraqi society has not been treated properly and sees evil everywhere. What does it matter if a girl wears make-up, publishes or dresses as she wishes?” she insisted. “Without freedom of expression, Iraqis will one day understand that they won’t be able to build their own future,” she says.

A wave of Islamic bigotry

Some people would like to put poor people in prison for a TikTok video, but can they put Islamists in prison for their content on websites or social networks where they praise radical groups, act against minorities and all those who are different? Of course not” added the deputy governor of Mosul, Ali Omar Gabou, whose Yezidi origins do not make him relish the all-Islamic morality atmosphere in his country.

At a press conference earlier this year, Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Khaled al-Muhanna denied that the government had any ill intentions: “This measure is not aimed at silencing mouths or combating freedoms, but at combating content with specific characteristics that are considered a clear and obvious violation of Iraqi law“, he stated.

In other words, move along, there’s nothing to see. For their part, NGOs and civil society organizations are denouncing a breach of the United Nations Charter of Human Rights, which Iraq has ratified. They are also concerned about a draft law aimed at restricting freedom of demonstration. At the same time, alcohol was officially banned in early 2023, although it is still widely available in dedicated shops in Baghdad. “This is a message to minorities to get out of Iraq. If they apply this law, it means that there is a shift towards Sharia, or Islamic law“, Ali Omar Gabou warned. All these questions about freedoms in Iraq raise an underlying question that has emerged within civil society: is the current government taking an authoritarian turn?

Behind this ongoing crackdown, many see the hand of Iran, Iraq’s big Shiite neighbor. This puritanical wave may be an attempt to seduce a voter base as well as Iraqi Islamic personalities, rather than really applying strictly conservative law in the country, albeit at the risk of alienating the United States and the European Union. But the geopolitical changes underway in the region are a wake-up call. From the peace agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia under the aegis of China to Syria’s reintegration into the Arab League and the re-election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, there is every reason to believe that human rights will increasingly take second place to peace, order and stability in the Middle East.  

VIABenoit Drevet