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On Friday, the government of Iraq censored access to Internet social media sites throughout the country, including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, WhatsApp and Viber. On Sunday, the Iraqi Ministry of Communications plans to shut down access in Iraq to the Internet entirely, ostensibly to repair optical cable across the Turkish border. Western media and international free speech rights groups such as Reporters Without Borders have been strangely silent on these authoritarian actions of the Iraqi Government that deprive millions of people, as well as journalists operating in Iraq, critical avenues of communication. At this moment, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have fled the violence in their country. Many are living in tent cities erected in haste by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Iraqi Kurdistan and elsewhere. Social media and Internet communication is something Iraqis need more of, not less.
The critical silence among the Western media is astounding. Both Iran’s and China’s censorship of social media and Internet websites critical of the government garners continuous criticism from Western journalists. Western media routinely criticize Moscow’s attempts to control Internet access and social media among its citizens. When the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, shut down YouTube and websites of his political enemies the Western press was up in arms. The addition of a provision in Kazakhstan’s telecommunications law that would allow the government control over Internet websites and social media was called “authoritarian.” In April of this year, Western media covered the demonstrators in Mexico City who were protesting the addition of an authoritarian policy to the country’s telecommunications law that would allow the government to shut down and censor Internet content and social media in the event of a political crisis. On the day the Iraqi government shut down social media, Reporters Without Borders criticized the apparent shutdown of YouTube in Tajikistan.
Perhaps in the event of a political crisis like the one Iraq is experiencing right now, the censorship of social media and the Internet is justified? The Islamist State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a brutal organization, after all, and has been known to use Twitter and other social media platforms in its propaganda campaigns. Authoritarian governments worldwide would like its citizens to believe that government stewardship of Internet content and access is the responsible course. However, events in Iraq are only proving the ineffectiveness and folly of such restrictions. When social media and Internet access is deprived, other technologies like VPN, satellite communications and proxy servers can fill the gap. Determined organizations like ISIS, which has operated in the remote deserts of Syria and Iraq for years, have developed their own independent methods of communication. Large swathes of the west and north of Iraq have fallen into the militants’ hands, depriving the government of control over its telecommunications infrastructure. The shutdown of social media and Internet access by the Iraqi government is only hurting Iraqi citizens who, at this grave time, are in dire need of communication avenues.
The authoritarian actions of the government of Iraq in its censorship of social media and the Internet not only raise humanitarian concerns but highlight just how far behind the technological curve such censorship policies are. Billions of dollars have been spent and hundreds of thousands of lives were lost in order to provide Iraqi citizens the basic freedoms they did not have under Saddam Hussein. The Western media needs to be more critical of such Internet censorship, or risk such authoritarian justifications closer to home.
Opinion by Steven Killings