Iraq’s Controversial “Ballegh” Platform for “Combating Indecent Content”

When Umm Fahd danced in the stadium while watching the 25th Arabian Gulf Cup in the Al-Basra governorate in early 2023, she did not expect to be summoned for questioning for “publishing indecent content.” She was sentenced to six months in prison after posting a video affirming her respect for the judiciary and her willingness to appear before the court.

On January 16, the Ministry of Interior formed a  committee to monitor indecent content on social media to expand its campaign against activists, influencers, and content creators, reported the Iraqi News Agency. According to news outlets close to the Iraqi government, the authorities arrested activists such as model Assal Houssam and public figures Hassan Sajmah, Sayyed Ali, and Saealusa.

Earlier, on January 10, the Ministry of Interior announced the launch of the “Ballegh” online platform “for reporting social media content that violates public morals, contains negative and indecent messages, and undermines social stability.” The Ministry also posted a video on YouTube where an officer explained the purpose of launching the platform and urged citizens to report “indecent content that violates public morals, customs and traditions, and is disrespectful towards military institutions.” The officer stated that authorities “will combat this content, which is as serious as organized crime, since it undermines the values of the Iraqi family.”

On February 13, the Ministry announced that it received 96,000 reports on “indecent content” through the “Ballegh” (Report) platform. It added that any officer who takes part in posting “indecent content” shall be subject to legal action.

The Ministry’s decision is based on Article 403 of the Iraqi Penal Code issued in 1969, which reads as follows: “Any person who produces, imports, publishes, possesses, obtains or translates a book, printed or other written material, drawing, picture, film, symbol or other items that violate public integrity or decency with the intent to exploit or distribute such material is punishable by a period of detention not exceeding two years plus a fine not exceeding 200 dinars or by one of those penalties. The same penalty applies to any person who advertises such material or displays it in public or sells, hires, or offers it for sale or hire even though it is not in public or to any person who distributes or submits it for distribution by any means. If the offense is committed with intent to degrade, it is considered to be an aggravating circumstance.”

Platform to Impose Self-Censorship?
The Ministry of Interior’s decision to launch the platform has stirred controversy between support and opposition. The latter is “concerned that the decision might have repercussions on critics and whistleblowers and might lead to restrictions on the freedom of opinion and expression in Iraq.”

Hayder Hamzoz, Executive Director of the Iraqi Network for Social Media (INSM), told SMEX that “this campaign is an early warning about threats to freedom, especially on digital platforms, since it’s not based on any specific criteria or legal provisions. Moreover, the reporting and decision-making process is not performed by experts.” 

Hamzoz described the campaign as “biased, retaliatory and deterrent,” adding that “its purpose is to instill fear in bloggers criticizing the constant political failures in Iraq, as confirmed by the statement issued by the Supreme Judicial Council.”

Ministry of Interior spokesman Khaled Al-Mahanna stated in a press conference that the criteria adopted by the authorities include “the severity of the violation, as the Iraqi Constitution guarantees the freedom of every citizen, provided that they do not encroach upon other people’s freedom or endanger their safety or their life.” Al-Mahanna confirmed that there is a specialized committee tasked with reviewing content and referring it to security authorities, which in turn raises it to the investigative judge who takes the adequate legal procedures.

Hamzoz argues that the platform’s oversight role has led some content creators to withdraw their previous statements, offer apologies to the Ministry of Interior, or close their accounts and refrain from expressing themselves for fear of prosecution. INSM’s Executive Director confirmed that “the platform’s primary objective is to prosecute critics and whistleblowers, which was implicitly mentioned in the statement issued by the Supreme Judicial Council on February 8, 2023.”

On February 12, Iraq’s National Security Advisor Qassim al-Araji “reassured” journalists that “journalists and media figures are not at risk, as the campaign for combating ‘indecent content’ targets individuals who misuse social media platforms and disrespect the Iraqi people. As for journalists, they deserve our respect and appreciation.”

However, Article 403 of the Penal Code has loopholes and ambiguous wording that could be used to silence people. Iraqi journalist and human rights expert Dlovan Brawri told SMEX that “the main problem in Iraq lies in the parties empowered to interpret the law, as they often succumb to pressures by the executive authorities. In other words, legal provisions could be misinterpreted to serve the executive’s purposes and restrict freedoms.” 

When asked whether the Ministry of Interior will use the “Ballegh” platform to combat posts that expose corruption or to prosecute people who criticize the Iraqi authorities, Brawri said: “We cannot predict what the Ministry of Interior will do next, but it might very well exploit the platform to that end, especially since the law includes certain expressions that can have very broad interpretations.”

In the same vein, Iraqi journalist and content creator Haider Safeena warned in a talk with SMEX that “the Iraqi Ministry of Interior might be biased in favor of content creators who have good relationships with politicians, silencing those who don’t.”

Some question whether the Iraqi authorities are trying to restrict content creators’ income sources. In this context, Brawri explained that the purpose “is not to restrict sources of income as much as it is to limit the influence of ‘fashionistas’ who now have significant power through their relationships with some public officials and influential figures.”

Nevertheless, the two journalists agreed in separate discussions with SMEX that “the Ministry of Interior’s decision and the ‘Ballegh’ platform do not target satirical content.” “This step could have positive impacts, such as fighting prostitution, content that encourages drug use, or takfiri posts,” they added.

“Ballegh”: Human rights violation
The platform has raised concerns about potential human rights violations and retaliation against influencers and content creators on social media. In an interview with SMEX, legal advisor at the Iraqi Parliament Ali Omar touched upon this issue, stating that the “Ballegh” platform is based on a legal provision that has not been updated in 50 years – namely, Article 403 of the Penal Code issued in 1969. Given that the Cybercrime Law has yet to be issued and the lack of a law on the right to access information, “the term ‘public decency’ in Article 403 will be misinterpreted, as it can have broad connotations.”

When asked about the possibility of challenging or appealing the Ministry of Interior’s decision, Omar said that “it is possible to appeal the decision if some MPs are opposed to it, in addition to the pressure and lobbying that civil society organizations in Iraq can exercise.”

Attorney Mohammad Joma’a told SMEX that the Ministry of Interior’s decision “was issued after the Parliament failed to issue the Cybercrime Law, which contained loosely worded provisions that impact freedom of expression in Iraq. As a result, the Ministry of Interior launched this platform, as it is legally empowered to do so. However, judicial authorities should still issue arrest and detention orders.”

The “Ballegh” platform is illegal because it is based on an old Penal Code that was last amended in the 1980s, back when social media networks did not exist. The article in question does not cover digital posts; rather, it only pertains to censorship on written material, publications and films, not on digital content,” Joma’a added. The attorney also warned that this decision “could be an omen of a dark future where people are silenced in Iraq. Currently, criminals are being released, while people are imprisoned without legal justification.”

Hamzoz pointed out that INSM will hold coordination meetings with its local and regional partners and civil society organizations in Iraq to build consensus on the need to oppose the decision and form a lobby. In the same context, SMEX Executive Director Mohamad Najem said that “the judiciary in most Arab countries has become a tool in the hands of security apparatuses, serving the interests of the authorities by repressing people who wish to publish content or spread a narrative opposed to that of the authorities.”

“The authorities want to punish people on social media while turning a blind eye to serious crimes of murder, assassination, and bombing,” Najem concluded.

“Jaafar Talk” Banned in Iraq
The Ministry of Interior’s decision coincided with the announcement made by Lebanese-German journalist Jaafar Abdul Karim, who presents the show “Jaafar Talk” on DW Arabic, that he had to cancel the filming of an episode and leave Iraq for security reasons. Shortly before the crew began filming, Abdul Karim received a direct threat on Instagram from an account affiliated with an Iraqi media outlet. The message accused the host of spreading “abnormal and perverse sexual behaviors in Baghdad,” in addition to posting clips from earlier “Jaafar Talk” episodes that dealt with homosexuality. 

Later, Abdul Karim released the episode that was supposed to be filmed in Iraq and spoke about the threats he received. SMEX tried to contact the Director of the Public Relations and Media Department at the Iraqi Ministry of Interior Saad Maan to ask him about the reasons for the Ministry’s decision to fight “indecent content” and the threats that Abdul Karim received in Iraq. The Ministry did not respond to the request.

It has become common practice for governments in Arab countries, such as Iraq, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to urge social media users to become “informants” and encourage citizens loyal to the state to attack opponents and critics of the ruling parties. As a result, users, influencers, and bloggers have become reluctant to express themselves on social media.

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Safaa Ayyad

Safaa Ayyad is a media graduate of Beirut Arab University. She works with several media outlets.