By Kendall Allen



Flag of Iraq

Freedom of speech in Iraq is infringed upon by both the governing body and terrorist organizations in the region. Iraq is classified as “Not Free” by Freedom House and is known as “one of the world’s deadliest places for journalists” because of these conditions (“Freedom”). The country is ranked poorly on the World Freedom Press Index by Reporters Without Borders, at 158 out of 180 countries. Since the early 2000s, this ranking has improved drastically, but its citizens are still quite unfree.

Historical Background

The Republic of Iraq is located at the eastern edge of the Arab world, and the nation shares a border with Turkey, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, along with a small stretch of the Persian Gulf (Bleaney 15). Iraq is home to Mesopotamia, “one of the earliest urban civilizations” including some of the great ancient civilizations such as the Akkadians, the Babylonians, and the Persians ruled by the likes of Cyrus the Great, Alexander the Great, and many more. Within the last millennia, the region has been under the control of the Iranian Dynasty, the Ottoman Turkish Dynasty, and the British Empire (Bleaney 18). Iraq has had a turbulent recent history, marked by the rule of brutal dictator Saddam Hussein from 1970 to 2003. During this time, “Iraq was under the one-party rule of the Baath party” and “everything was under the control of the government” (al-Bayati 312). Saddam Hussein lost control of the country in 2003, when the United States (US) invaded Iraq due to a belief that the nation was developing weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. military implemented an interim government in Iraq, and a democratic constitution was ratified by the Iraqi people in 2004 (“Iraq”). Today, Iraq is a functioning parliamentary republic, and many of the guidelines of this new constitution align with Western ideas about freedom of speech and expression, albeit with more than a few exceptions (al-Rawi 39). Iraq’s population of 38,100,000 is very diverse, causing additional difficulties in the nation (“Freedom”). Arabs, Iranians, and Kurds populate the vast region. In northern Iraq, the region populated by Kurds, known as Iraqi Kurdistan, is a separate, autonomous region (King 6). Approximately 95 percent of the region consists of Muslims, 60 percent of whom are Shi’i Muslims, and according to one scholar, “religious divisions are deeply embedded in Iraqi society” (Bleaney 16). In recent years, this religious division has been increasingly apparent in regard to the Islamic State, a radical Sunni Muslim terrorist organization with control of parts of northern Iraq. Recently, the Iraqi government announced victory over the Islamic State and maintains control over the Iraqi-Syrian border.

Free Speech

Under the control of the Baath Party, freedom of speech was severely restricted. Community freedom was placed at the forefront rather than individual freedoms, a far cry from traditional western ideas about freedom of speech (Faust 28). No political criticism was allowed, and retaliation against protesters was extremely brutal. In 1983, Saddam punished the Kurdistan Democratic Party after the Iran-Iraq War by abducting over 5,000 Barzani men. Later, hundreds were found in mass graves (Faust). All political parties were outlawed and no protests against the oppressive regime were tolerated.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is an extremely brutal terrorist organization that had control over portions of north-western Iraq in recent years. The Mosul Eye, a blogger who documented the actions of ISIS in Mosul, remained anonymous out of fear for his life and his family’s. He began his blogging on Facebook but quickly found that the Islamic State was not tolerant of speech against the organization. For more than three years, the Mosul Eye documented the horrors of ISIS before he was forced to escape for fear of retaliation (Hinnant). He escaped, but many others were brutally murdered for attempting to exercise free speech.

Within its caliphate, ISIS banned Wi-Fi use so they were easily able to check histories of users in internet cafes. The organization constantly monitored internet cafes and would immediately arrest anyone with a suspicious internet history (al-Rawi). This had the effect of only allowing those living within regions controlled by ISIS to see their propaganda. Sponsored media flooded Islamic State territory, so the people had little knowledge of the outside world.

Today, Iraqi freedoms have expanded considerably, and the constitution guarantees the right of free expression and freedom of assembly. Some notable exceptions are that support for the Baath Party is prohibited and protests can be regulated. Currently, organizers are required to request prior permission to protest, explain the reason for protests, and certain signs are prohibited (“Iraq 2016”).

There have been prominent free speech issues in the last few years dealing with how the Iraqi government handles protests. Frequently, the Iraqi people have protested government corruption, and the vast majority of demonstrations are peaceful; however, security forces are known to use violent means to stop protests. Most recently, in 2016 civilians were protesting the Iraqi prime minister’s corruption. According to the U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Report, “masked men came out of the office and began to beat the protestors,” and the police did not intervene (“Human Rights”). No one was ever held responsible for the crime.

In 2016, the Iraqi Parliament began working on a bill that would restrict speech in various ways. The bill restricts the right to demonstrate to citizens only, limits the size of peaceful protests, restricts the place and time in which protests can take place, allows the Prime Minister to prohibit any protest, and gives violators a 10-year prison sentence (“Reviewing”). After the proposal of this bill in May 2017, protests erupted, and the Iraqi Parliament decided to “indefinitely postpone” the vote (“Iraq: Draft Law”). The bill made another appearance in July 2017 with a similar outcome because of “pressures of activists” (Mostafa). The proposed regulations are frightening, but the Iraqi people have managed to maintain their existing freedom to protest.

Free Press

During the 25-year reign of Saddam Hussein, all media were state controlled, and the Iraqi people received no information that was not state approved (al-Rawi). Those caught with satellite dishes would be jailed or executed, and journalists were granted no protection from violence. This regime was one of the most oppressive of the 20th century. British reporter Farzad Bazoft was arrested, tortured, and hanged by Saddam in 1990, causing global outrage (Trelford). He was wrongfully accused of treason and did not have a proper trial because he was a foreign journalist. This served as a warning to the world about the atrocities to come from Saddam.

The Islamic State was well known for creating videos of violent murders to deter the media from being active in their areas of control. In 2016, ISIS filmed the torture and murders of five men who were allegedly reporters, including a threat to all journalists: “This will be your fate” (“Fresh Threats”). According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, since 2013, 27 journalists have been murdered by the Islamic State and 11 are still missing, presumed dead. The horrific actions of ISIS severely limited media in Mosul and other regions controlled by the terrorist organization.

Today, freedom of the press in Iraq is guaranteed by the constitution, but the Iraqi government and powerful outside forces such as terrorist organizations have created a hostile environment that is not conducive of an active media. Self-censorship is common in the country because of libel laws and violence against journalists. According to al-Rawi’s book Media Practice in Iraq, “coalition forces, Iraqi government officials, powerful political parties, insurgent groups, religious leaders, and armed militias” work to undermine Iraqi free press (66).

Both Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government have laws that make libel a criminal offense, thus deterring journalists. Senior Iraqi officials are known to file libel suits against journalists who expose government corruption (al-Rawi 69). Because of the attacks against journalists on a multitude of fronts, media is often biased in order to seek protections from party leaders. Political parties frequently fund newspapers to portray certain events in a positive light (al-Rawi 66). Furthermore, the Iraqi Communications and Media Commission has the power to shut down media stations. In May 2016, Al Jazeera’s Baghdad bureau was closed because of the station’s “editorial policies,” but the act was viewed as an attack on the media by many (“Human Rights”).

In addition, journalists in Iraq are threatened with physical harm if they violate unwritten rules. There have been multiple instances of journalists being kidnapped or murdered in Iraq and Kurdistan, and most of these crimes go unpunished (“2017 World”). Since 2003, Iraq has consistently been one of the deadliest countries for journalists; 185 journalists have died from 2003 to 2018, with 112 of those being murders (“Fresh Threats”). It is difficult to determine how many of those attacks were the responsibility of the Iraqi government, but there are several confirmed instances. In northern Iraq, journalists were murdered and arrested while covering protests, including Wedad Hussein Ali and Arkan Shareef (“2017 World”). Terrorist groups and government forces are known to kill journalists in Iraq during times of political turmoil. Naturally, this causes self-censorship, and journalists do not report controversial news or write about politicians or groups directly.

Critical Comparison

The United States is listed at number 43 on the World Press Freedom Index, while Iraq is ranked 158. This stark difference is surprising because the United States took part in the creation of the Republic of Iraq and its most recent constitution. While free speech is guaranteed in Article 38 of the Iraqi Constitution, peaceful assembly is “regulated by law” in the constitution (“Iraq’s Constitution”). Signs or slogans involving sectarianism, racism, or segregation are prohibited, along with anything insulting to Islamic “honor, morals, religion, holy groups, or Iraqi entities in general” (“Human Rights”). The meaning of morals can be subjective and has the opportunity for additional censorship by the Iraqi government. This is in contrast to the United States, in which nearly any speech is allowed at protests. In 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled on Snyder v. Phelps, and funeral picketers who held religiously offensive signs and criticized the U.S. military were protected from liability. The court ruled that the message of the church was allowed because it regarded a matter of interest to the public on a public street, and no claim could be made for intentional infliction of emotional distress in these circumstances.

The practice of charging journalists with libel is another difference between the United States and Iraq. In Iraq, libel is frequently used to deter negative commentary about public officials, whereas in the United States, journalists are largely shielded from libel and emotional distress claims because of New York Times v. Sullivan and Hustler v. Falwell. The courts have interpreted the First Amendment to protect as much speech as possible, even false speech, so long as the speech does not involve actual malice. The effects of the differences between these laws is that journalists in Iraq are known to self-censor in order to prevent violations of the law which in turn reduces democratic debate. In New York Times v. Sullivan, Justice Brennan spoke about the need to deter self-censorship because it dangerously prevents democratic debate.

The Iraqi Constitution declares Islam as its official religion, while the United States does not have an established religion (“Iraq’s Constitution”). While freedom of religion is guaranteed in Iraq, this promise is not fulfilled in practice. The Bahai religion and the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam are both outlawed in the country, and only recognized religions are protected. Practicing and unorthodox religion can result in ten years of imprisonment (“Human Rights”). In addition, antiterrorism laws are used to detain the Sunni minority without due process. In America, while xenophobia of particular religions is an issue, all religions are afforded protection under the constitution. Practicing a particular religion ties directly with freedom of expression because religion is integral to political belief and human identity. Iraqis are unable to fully express themselves or have full reign over their thoughts under this type of oppressive government restriction.

Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, journalists have frequently been imprisoned, murdered, or gone missing because of the government and other entities. In the United States, this can happen, but it is extraordinarily rare. In all cases, murders are investigated, and journalists are provided with reasonable protections, though the United States is not without scrutiny in this department. Since 2003, two journalists have been killed in America, and none of those were suspected of being carried out by the U.S. government (“2017 World”). This is no comparison to the nearly 200 journalists in Iraq that have died as a result of their profession.


The instability of the Iraqi government when compared to the American government could serve as an explanation for additional restrictions on speech. As a democratic nation, Iraq is extremely young, and American troops have only been absent from the region since 2011. It may take many years for the Iraqi government to meet western ideas about freedom of expression, especially because of the previously brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. The additional violence and turbulence of the surrounding region creates a difficult situation that is often not conducive to democracy or an active media. Since the recent eradication of ISIS in the nation, the Iraqi government seems to be increasing restrictions on speech rather than loosening them.

Works Cited

“2017 World Freedom Press Index.” Reporters Without Borders, 2017, Accessed 15 Feb. 2018.

al-Bayati, Hamid. From Dictatorship to Democracy. Penn, 2011.

al-Rawi, Ahmed K. Media Practice Iraq. Palgrave MacMillan, 2012.

Bleaney, C. H. World Bibliographical Series Vol. 42: Iraq. Clio Press, 1995.

Faust, Aaron M. The Ba’athification of Iraq: Saddam Hussein’s Totalitarianism. University of Texas Press, 1991.

“Freedom of the Press 2017: Iraq.” Freedom House, 2017, Accessed 22 Feb. 2018.

“Fresh Threats to Journalists from Islamic State Group.” Committee to Protect Journalists, 27 June 2016,

Hinnant, Lori and Maggie Michael. “Chronicler of Islamic State ‘Killing Machine’ GoesPublic.” Associated Press, 8 Dec. 2017,

“Iraq 2016 Human Rights Report.” U.S. Department of State, 29 Mar. 2017,

“Iraq.” Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, 2017, p. 1p. 1. EBSCOhost,

“Iraq: Draft Law Restricts Rights to Freedom of Expression and Peaceful Assembly.” Alkarama, 13 May 2017,

“Iraq’s Constitution of 2005.” Constitute, 17 Jan. 2018,

King, Diane E. Kurdistan on the Global Stage: Kinship, Land, and Community in Iraq. Rutgers University Press, 2013.

Mostafa, Mohamed. “Iraqi Parliament Fails to Vote on Bill Restricting Protest Rights.” Iraqi News, 24 Jul. 2017,

“Reviewing the Draft Law on Freedom of Expression in Iraq.” Iraq Civil Society Solidarity Initiative, 11 Oct. 2017,

Trelford, Donald. “Executed by Saddam Hussein: The Death of Observer Reporter Farzad Bazoft, 20 Years On.” The Guardian, 13 Mar. 2010,

This essay was last updated on April 30, 2018.

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