Iraqi bloggers and social media activists speak up for their country
By Maryam Mohammed Jaafar
Published on December 1, 2011
The 27-year-old Sahab gives a long laugh: “The Iraqi government doesn’t bother me when I publish news and facts about the situation in Iraq in my blog.”
“I write under a pseudonym so no one knows my real identity,” he says, explaining this choice: “If the government finds out who I am, it will start to follow me and restrict me.”
Sahab’s smile is filled with hope when he adds: “I know it’s dangerous to write but it’s important to document the suffering of the people and help them by letting others know the truth. I don’t want the crimes that happened in my country to be forgotten.”
Sahab launched his blog Shelters of death in March 2008. “I receive 50 visitors per day and a lot of comments,” he says.
The media landscape in Iraq, strictly controlled under the dictatorial rule of Saddam Hussein, started recovering and opening up after his fall from power in 2003, with the gradual establishment of 52 radio stations, 47 televisions stations and 160 newspapers and an increasing activity in the blogosphere and social media networks.
|Iraqi Bloggers via Facebook|
Blog or Facebook?
Nevertheless, although Iraq now describes itself as a democratic country, many bloggers express concern that they are being monitored by government agencies.
Rusul Kamel, a 24-year old Iraqi activist and blogger writes human rights issues in the capital Baghdad: “I write everything in my blog, but I’m afraid to criticise the government because I have heard of many arrests among bloggers and I’ve been told of the government’s control of all that is published. I do not know how truthful this information is but to be on the safe side sometimes I publish my writing on my Facebook page because I trust that my friends will not betray me.”
Kamel started blogging in 2010 after meeting a group of young people who introduced her to the practice. “My blog is the place to express myself and circle all the concerns that I’ve been having and that many young people like me are facing,” she says.
“Every citizen is an observer,” she continues.” When my attention is drawn to a particular issue, I write about it in order to rally public opinion. A journalist can also be a blogger. I find that many journalists keep private blogs, because blogging gives the freedom to write without being restricted by media organisations’ rules.”
Tiba, a 21-year Iraqi blogger in Baghdad, says that social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter provide more safety than blogs: “I am mostly frightened by the threats that bloggers receive in Iraq for publishing information and expressing their opinions freely on their blogs. I gather my information from credible sources and I spread it on other sites than my blog such as Facebook and Twitter, which are the most popular sites because of the protection of privacy that they provide.”
Iraqi streets is one of the most read blogs in Iraq. It hosts more than 107 articles in Arabic and 85 articles in English, and receives more than 220 visitors every month. At the origin of the blog was the desire to offer a space for people to express their opinions freely, show mutual respect for each other, and share their belief in the principles of peace and freedom of opinion.
Another famous blog is Iraqi Bloggers. It was created in the early stages of the emergence of the Iraqi blogsphere, with the aim to connect bloggers with one another. The blog gathers most Iraqi bloggers, i.e. more than 74 bloggers writing from different parts of Iraq. It also has a page on Facebook where bloggers say they feel safer from the government’s reach.
Bloggers played an important role in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities in rallying public opinion during demonstrations earlier this year in February calling upon the government to uphold the constitution. They also wrote about the abuses committed by security forces against protesters and journalists during the demonstrations.
Young Iraqis who are active on Facebook and Twitter say that “social networking sites are useful to network, communicate with friends and disseminate news and pictures.”
The limits of blogging
Despite increased activity in the blogosphere, however, Iraq still ranks high in the list of countries suffering from a lack of knowledge in the field of information technology.
“Blogging is a project still in its early stages,” says Sodad Salehi, a 35 year-old political affairs correspondent for Reuters in Baghdad. “Many blog sites do not abide by journalistic standards of accuracy of information.”
“The majority of bloggers in Iraq do not know their rights and duties and believe they can attack political figures based on unconfirmed information. They tend to follow their emotions and to mix facts and personal opinions,” she adds. “Bloggers are a threat to the press because readers do not know the difference between bloggers and journalists.”
In her critical view of the blogosphere, Salehi further argues that “ninety-five percent of the blogs are not subject to censorship, and have become an arena for political and social debate and exchange of accusations.”
Wameth al-kassab, a 33 year-old independent human rights activist, thinks that bloggers are not reliable reporters: “Blogs are a waste of time both for the bloggers and their readers because bloggers are not journalists and there is no proof that the information they publish is true.”
The debate remains open. During the Arab Spring uprisings earlier this year, the internet and social media sites competed with the mainstream media as sources of information and played a significant role in the transfer of news.
For Mohammed amin, the editor of Al-hawar magazine, blogs can be valuable resources: “When I needed more information about the Syrian revolution, I was able to use the blogs to get pictures and video material, so I do not consider blogging as a threat to the work of journalists.”
Iraqi bloggers say they are concerned about possible future regulations on freedom of expression. Even today they feel they should be careful about what they write because they still run the risk of being arrested. On the other hand, they want to protect democracy by sharing as many facts about real life as possible.
* Maryam Jaafar: writes as a freelance journalist for several newspapers and also does volunteer work for Iraqi human rights organisations. She graduated in Political Science at Baghdad University in July 2011 and is the winner of the 2011 Kamel Shiaa Prize for Iraqi press freedom. Her interests lie in media, story writing, poetry, communicating with people and working with NGOs.