3 Steps Forward, 2 Steps Back: The Iraqi Two-Step

Like many Americans, I don’t know how we ended up in Iraq. Just one day I turned on the news, and there we were, toppling Hussein’s regime. I think that I, like many of us from countries who have committed troops to Iraq, feel that we ended up there undereducated and under confused circumstances, but that if at the end of the day Iraqis could experience the security and freedoms that we have, it would be worth it.

And things have changed. Despite continued violence Iraqis have started experiencing a new life. One where stores sell alcohol (Is there such a thing as Iraqi Rum, and if so, can someone get me some?), Turkish soap operas are on the television, and internet cafes have started allowing the youth of Iraq to experience the joys of Facebook refusing to upload their photos (Simple photo uploader my butt, is all I’m saying.) Any change that allows a whole new group of people access to my website, well that is change I can believe in.

But quietly, the Iraqi government has been taking steps to begin censoring, monitoring, and denying access to books and the internet to its citizens. According to The New York Time’s article on August 4, 2009 “this spring the government contacted the handful of 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.”

The Associated Press stated in their article that “the plan to strengthen government control of content and usage will require Internet cafes – and later the service providers as well – to obtain licenses that are subject to government review and cancellation if compliance requirements are not met.”

The Journalistic Freedom Observatory is quoted by the Associated Press explaining that “the plan violates the Iraqi constitution, which guarantees the freedom of mail, telegrams, phone and electronic communications. The constitution, enacted in 2005, says such communications cannot be monitored, tabbed, or revealed.” Then I read in the New York Time’s piece that “Iraq’s Constitution is not clear on the matter. It guarantees freedom of expression, but only if it ‘does not violate public order and morality’.” Now wait, the Associated Press is going with the plan violating the Constitution but the New York Times is saying that the Constitution isn’t clear on the matter? Who is right?

Well, long time readers know that I’m not afraid to dive into another country’s constitution. I still have fevered dreams of wading through all 165 pages of the Malaysian constitution. The good news is Iraq’s constitution comes in at a pitiful 43 pages, still more than ours, but considerably less than Malaysia. So after several glasses of wine and a whole lot of talking to my computer monitor I’ve come to the conclusion that everyone is right.

Article 40 does guarantee “The freedom of communication and correspondence, postal, telegraphic, electronic, and telephonic, shall be guaranteed and may not be monitored, wiretapped, or disclosed except for legal and security necessity and by a judicial decision.” And Article 38 does read much like America’s First Amendment, guaranteeing, “Freedom of expression using all means. Freedom of press, printing, advertisement, media and publication. Freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration, and this shall be regulated by law.” But those are actually sections A, B, and C of the Article. The Article begins with “The State shall guarantee in a way that does not violate public order and morality:” And that to me seems like an awesome way to at any point decide that something “violates morality”. I mean, with a qualifier like that, why bother?

To put it into perspective, I can say right here on my publicly viewed website that I think Taher Naser al-Hmood (Iraq’s deputy cultural minister) is dooty head and that I would encourage someone to kick him in the shin. To say that here in the United States gets you nothing, even if I said I would encourage someone to kick President Obama in the shin, it still merits no attention. (You’ve got to make credible threats against the President’s life to get a visit from the nice men in suits with guns. Don’t ask me how I know.) However, to make that statement about Taher Naser al-Hmood in Iraq, let’s say by a frustrated teen on his Facebook page, could get an entire internet service provider shut down, assuming Taher takes offense, and that these laws are passed.

This brings me to something I discovered while wading through Iraq’s Constitution that got no mention by The New York Times or the Associated Press. That might mean it’s nothing, or that I’m reading it wrong. I’m not even an expert on America’s Constitution, let alone Iraq’s! However, here it is. The second section of Article 126 of Iraq’s Constitution states “The fundamental principles mentioned in Section One and the rights and liberties mentioned in Section Two (which is where the Articles mentioned are from) of the Constitution may not be amended except after two successive electoral terms, with the approval of two-thirds of the members of the Council of Representatives, the approval of the people in a general referendum, and the ratification by the President of the Republic within seven days.” This says to me there could potentially be a vote about the changes being proposed. Of course, the government can avoid it by arguing that they are not amending those Articles, they are merely putting things in place to ensure that things in the press, books, or on the internet do not “violate public order and morality”. See what I mean about why bothering?

Benjamin Franklin said “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Iraq is a country struggling to secure itself. They want what every nation wants, to live in peace. To help the process along, their government feels that by censoring what its citizens can read will make a difference. And let’s say it works. By not being able to read things critical of Islam, or seeing violent images, or watching scantily clad women shake their badonkadonks on You Tube, the violence in Iraq decreases. Congratulations Iraqi government, you saved Iraq from violence, but in the process of saving it, you’ve taken it back to the policies that existed under Saddam Hussein. Congratulations.

Update: I’m pleased to say, the journalists, authors, and publishers of Iraq are fighting back! Click here!