Iraq Implementing Internet Censorship

Tod Hunter
BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government is taking steps to control online traffic, banning websites considered harmful and requiring Internet cafes to register with the authorities, as part of a crackdown that also includes pressuring publishers to censor books.

The cafes and Internet service providers will be required to be licensed by the government, and licenses will be subject to review and possible cancellation if licensees do not meet compliance standards. The move to license cafes has already started.

“Our constitution respects freedom of thought and freedom of expression, but that should come with respect for society as a whole, and for moral behavior,” said Taher Naser al-Hmood, Iraq’s deputy cultural minister. “It is not easy to balance security and democracy. It is like being a tightrope walker.”

Ziad al-Ajeeli, director of the Society to Defend the Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit Iraqi group, said the new rules constitute a “return of dictatorship.”

“Imposing censorship represents an end of the freedom of expression and thought that arrived in Iraq after April 9, 2003,” he said, referring to the day a statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in Baghdad.

After the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraqis could access information and websites that had been blocked under Saddam Hussein, including American and Israeli news and entertainment sites, music videos featuring scantily clad singers, websites recruiting suicide bombers, racy Egyptian soap operas and romance novels.

The constitution of Iraq guarantees freedom of expression, but only if it “does not violate public order and morality.” It also specifically prohibits material that includes accusations of being an apostate — a justification that has been used by Sunni extremists to kill Shiites, who dominate the Iraq government.

It is estimated that only a few hundred thousand people have Internet access in Iraq, but it is popular among the young. Among the more popular uses are Facebook, dating sites and adult entertainment websites.

This spring, the government contacted the few Iraqi book publishers still in business and asked them to compile lists of their books, along with a description of the subject matter. The material is to be kept at the Ministry of Culture, which is also preparing a document to be signed by publishers in which they will pledge not to distribute books the government deems offensive.

Book publishers say the new policy could be the end of Iraq’s book publishing industry.