Censorship In Iraq: Websites Still Blocked Amid Security Threat

In a last ditch effort to mitigate risk, the Iraqi Al Maliki administration has implemented since June 13, 2014 Internet shutdowns and social media bans, has ordered Internet Service Providers to block virtual private networks (VPNs) and has asked mobile telephone operators to stop the transfer of mobile data. Internet Sans Frontières condemns this attack on the basic freedoms and human rights of the Iraqi people, and warns that such measures might prove counterproductive to the Iraqi government.

On June 13, the government of Iraq ordered the blocking of several websites and social media networks, such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube in five provinces, in a bid to hinder online publication by the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS/ISIL) of graphic content, which might amplify sectarian conflict. The jihadi militant group was initially present in Iraq under the al-Qaeda  banner, before it was ousted whilst fighting the Assad regime in Syria in early 2013. Since then, the group has made rapid military gains, ruthlessly yet efficiently controlling large parts of Northern Syria. It has consolidated control of large swaths of Sunni regions in Iraq including the key cities of Mosul and Tikrit in a lightning advance these past 5 days, and is now advancing on Baghdad.
Since its creation, ISIS/ISIL has been effectively using social media to attract global support by disseminating propaganda (as analysed by J.M Berger  ), and recruiting essentially foreign fighters as shown in this current multilingual campaign   for its friday global rally.
Reports from Iraqi Internet users - confirmed by Hayder Hamzoz, founder of the Iraqi Network for Social Media, and Ammar Al Shahbander, the Iraq director for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting - showed error messages received when users tried to connect to social media websites. Internet service providers explained that they complied with censorship orders    from the Ministry of Communication.
Although the block was officially lifted on June 14, 2014, Mashable reports   that major social media platforms remained inaccessible on Monday June 16. 

According to a Daily Dot translation  of the document issued by the Ministry of Communications, Internet Service providers were instructed to cut all access to Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninewa, and Salahuddin provinces, now controlled by ISIS, the autonomous Kurdish region, as well as areas in which Iraqi military operations are ongoing. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Skype, Tango, WhatsApp, Viber and Instagram are all banned. Iraqis have increasingly turned to Whisper  , a mobile app, to circumvent such censorship, but this might also be stopped as the ministry has instructed mobile telephone operators to block mobile data  .

Outside of government controlled areas, some connectivity has been observed as users resort to satellite links or fiber-optic lines from ISPs in neighbouring countries.

The Internet blocks have not succeeded in stemming the flow of ISIS propaganda, nor do they seem to have disrupted ISIS ability to mobilise on zone. As the Washington Post reports, the jihadi militants are now equipped with military UHF and VHF encrypted radio communications as well as the usual satellite devices  .

The emergency measures implemented by the Iraqi government are not only liberticide, but may also prove counterproductive in the long run.
- Allowing free speech is necessary not only to counter jihadi propaganda and provide independent viewpoints to local and international audiences, but it also opens channels of communication which the government should seize to grow trust and inform its concerned citizens;
- Freedom of online assembly enables ordinary citizens to support the fragile state institutions and organise civilian efforts, aid and funding campaigns indispensable to manage the impending humanitarian catastrophe - especially the staggering number of internally displaced people   in the provinces that have now been denied Internet access;
- Guaranteeing unfettered connectivity to its citizens is a sign of good governance. By attempting to ban access to cyberspace - ban which has been implemented by some, but not all ISPs and mobile operators - the Al Maliki administration may unwittingly be showcasing its lack of coherence and control thereby forfeiting - in the name of the Iraqi people - the war being waged in the information sphere.

The International Covenant on Civil and political rights, which Iraq signed and ratified, proclaims "the right to freedom of expression", which includes "freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media". According to this treaty, which is enshrined by article 40 of the Iraqi Constitution, freedom of expression can only be restricted by the law and when necessary.
Being able to communicate without hindrance is vital for citizens, even more so in zones of armed conflict. Internet shutdowns ordered by spooked governments - whether partial or total - may become a worrying trend in warfare. In May 2013, for example, days after suffering an airstrike in the Damascus outskirts, the Assad regime shut down the Syrian Internet for 19 hours.
The Iraqi government’s order to block Internet as well as popular social networks and mobile data appears disproportionate and misguided. Internet Sans Frontières condemns this attack on basic freedoms and human rights of the Iraqi people and denounces a counterproductive move.
In the face of clear and present danger, the people of Iraq should maintain the right to organise their security freely.

Iraq was considered a low risk country in a 2012 study by Renesys   on countries most likely to disconnect from the Internet.
Iraq's internet penetration is the lowest in the region, according to OpenNet Initiative. There were 2.5 million users by December 2012 - around 8% of the population.
More than 80% of Iraqis have a mobile phone.
Analysis of Internet Usage Intensity in Iraq:

June 2013 - Almas Heshmati, Firas H. Al-Hammadany, Ashraf Bany-Mohammed
Designing and implemention Iraqi E-government Front Office Online System http://www.scientificpapers.org/wp-content/files/1447_Hayder_Sabah-Designing_and_Implementation_Iraqi_E-Government_Front_Office_Online_System.pdf
Useful Links
Institute for War and Peace Reporting   - Iraq
Iraqi Network for Social Media http://insm-iq.com/   #INSM_iq as well as this list of trusted Twitter users
Hackerspace “Fikra Space  ” (Facebook) founded by Ali Ismail, Bilal Ghalib
Iraqi Technological Academy
Institute for the Study of War - Iraq Updates

(please let us know if you have other links to share)


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Stephanie Lamy

Mercredi 18 Juin 2014

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