New Union Aims to Protect Iraqi Bloggers
Increasing intimidation prompts internet activists to join forces.
By Abeer Mohammed – Iraq
ICR Issue 375,
23 Jun 11
Growing threats against the fledgling movement of Iraqi bloggers have led a group of social media activists to create the country’s first-ever bloggers union.
Bloggers and social media users say that intimidation against them has increased, especially since the staging of protests against government corruption and inadequate services – inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings .
Internet activists say that they have been subject to threats ranging from abusive comments on blog posts to actual physical violence.
Hayder Hamzoz, a well-known Iraq blogger and the deputy head of the new organisation, was beaten twice this year while attending protests in Baghdad’s Tahrir square.
Hamzoz told IWPR that he was live-tweeting details of attacks by security forces against protesters from his mobile phone during an April demonstration when several men attacked and beat him severely before stealing his mobile.
“My mobile might have been taken, but the truth will not die,” the student said.
“I was covered in blood and security people were watching the men beating me. I shouted to get help, but they turned their eyes away.”
Hamzoz was again beaten in a protest on June 10, when attackers once more tried to steal his phone but were stopped by other demonstrators.
Although the attacks led him to twice briefly suspend his blog, active since late 2007, Hamzoz says he will no longer be deterred from continuing to speak out online.
“I am just expressing my ideas,” he said. “I am just saying what I think.”
Although Iraq has a low level of internet penetration, there are hundreds of active blogs, most of which are written anonymously.
In the absence of any body in charge of protecting bloggers and their rights, no statistics are available about the number of the Iraqi bloggers being attacked or targeted.
While journalists have legal protection as well as unions and employers to represent them,, bloggers have no such fallback.
Ziad al-Ajeli, the executive director of the Baghdad-based Journalistic Freedom Observatory, JFO, an IWPR partner, said, “Bloggers and social media users face more – and growing – threats than even journalists. They play a leading role in their societies and face a high risk because of this.”
Mohammed Hasan, the pseudonym of an Iraqi blogger, said he stopped his activism after recently surviving a bombing.
The young Iraqi, who had been blogging since 2009, said that attack happened as he headed to Mutanabi Street, the site of a Baghdad book market he used to attend weekly.
He said he believed he had been targeted directly due to his online criticism of the government crackdown on protesters and NGOs, as days before he had received an email which read, “You are a good guy and student, keep away from politics.”
Wameedh al-Qassab, an Iraqi blogger who fled the country last year and was often critical of the government, said the reason for his departure was the frequent threats against him and even attacks.
Al-Qassab said, however, that he has kept on writing while in exile. “I will not accept defeat,” he added.
The newly-formed blogger’s union is currently waiting for official approval and, although it will not receive government funding, members hope that gaining some legal status will provide them with both a degree of extra protection as well as highlighting the importance of their activities.
“One of the reasons we want to form a union for Iraqi bloggers is to provide some kind of protection for our members as threats grow against bloggers,” Hamzoz said. “For example, if a blogger is arrested then the union can provide him with a lawyer.”
Some bloggers have claimed that certain officials are behind the harassment, but Ali al-Mosawi, the head of the National Media Centre, a government body, rejected the allegation.
“Give me one number, one name for an Iraqi blogger arrested due to his blogging,” Al-Mosawi said. “[The attacks] are being committed by people who are not related to the government .
“We are not against freedom and we are not against freedom of expression.”
While there is no specific piece of Iraqi legislation which protects bloggers, the country’s constitution upholds the right to freedom of expression.
Ashwaq al-Jaf, a Kurdish legislator from the parliamentary committee in charge of monitoring the government’s performance on human rights, noted that her body had never received any complaints of harassment by social media activists, but added that bloggers should be protected.
“If their ideas express their stance regarding a particular issue, then attacking them is considered a violation of their human rights,” she said.
“Accessing the internet is one of our human rights in this country, after a 35-year dictatorship, so we should protect it well .”
Ammar Bin Hatem, the head of the bloggers union, said that despite the risks he saw a bright future for blogging in the country.
“Blogging is still in its infancy in Iraq, but it is spreading widely,” he said. “It will play a big role in making an impact in the community.
“If we keep on with our activity in inspiring people, we will be credited one day with helping bring about Iraqi democracy.”
Abeer Mohammed is an IWPR editor in Baghdad.