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03 Jul. 2014

By Annika Wetterling, Atlas. Translated from Danish by International Media Support.

In the midst of Iraq’s rapidly deteriorating security and within a dwindling space for exercising basic freedoms, young bloggers are among the few who dare to speak openly

“Don’t write stuff like that! They’ll put you in jail. You should delete the post right now to be on the safe side!”

Mohammed Abdullah, 27, got the message from an acquaintance in the Iraqi police force in December 2013. He had criticised the police on his Facebook profile for negligence during a terrorist attack in Iraq’s northern city of Kirkuk.

An increasing number of young Iraqis have started blogging in recent years. With Iraqi lawmakers putting pressure on Internet service providers (ISPs) to lower their prices, thousands of young people have gotten online and started blogging about political issues.

“I blog about problems the politicians don’t care about it. They don’t care about helping the Iraqi people. I want to change that,” said Mohammed Abdullah.

Taking street protests online

The Arab Spring is still very much on the minds of many young Iraqis, says Mohammed Abdullah. But after the Iraqi radio host Hadi al-Mahdi was killed in a demonstration in Baghdad in September 2011, street protests and activism have largely died down. Freedom and democracy are not alien concepts to young Iraqis, but they seem far removed from everyday life in the country. Until positive progress takes place, Iraq’s young bloggers use their writing to escape from daily worries and to call attention to the wrongdoings they see.

Mohammed Abdullah and three other bloggers are sitting around a rickety, white plastic table in a small villa in Sulaymaniah in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. The air conditioning is largely unsuccessful in its attempt to cool the messy room where mattresses and open suitcases are strewn across the floor. Around 12 bloggers are gathered in the villa. They are developing a series of joint media productions with young Danes who are part of a collaboration project supported by International Media Support (IMS).

Most of the Iraqi bloggers have travelled to Sulaymaniah from Baghdad. They feel safer here, they say. Several of them have lost friends and family members over the past couple of years, and they are worried that the growing insurgency by the Sunni extremist group, ISIL, may see their country return to its bloody 2006-2007 civil war.

A day without a bomb in Baghdad is almost like the exception that proves the rule, the bloggers joke. On the days when more than a dozen bombs go off, you tend to stay inside, they add in a more sombre tone of voice.

Mohammed Abdullah did not go to prison over his Facebook post. The threat of imprisonment was just that: a threat. And Mohammed decided against deleting his post.

“I won’t delete anything I publish, because I only publish things I believe in,” he says.

“We don’t care about the consequences. That’s the most important thing,” adds Bahar Jasim, a freelance photographer.

“That’s because you don’t have a girlfriend,” jokes Dina Najem. She is a founding member of the IMS-supported Iraqi Network for Social Media, INSM.

Freedoms curtailed

The other bloggers erupt in laughter over Dina’s comment. Slightly embarrassed, Bahar Jasim knows of course the gravity of the broader situation: blogging in Iraq is likely to put you and your loved ones at risk.

Basic rights are under constant threat in Iraq. Human rights organisations have criticised the government of Nouri al-Maliki for not living up to the most basic requirements of democracy, including its failure to establish an independent judicial system and guaranteeing people’s ability to exercise their right to freedom of expression.

Numerous journalists have been imprisoned, harassed, tortured and murdered in the past decade, and most media outlets are closely affiliated with political or religious organisations or individuals. This makes for a tiny selection of independent, critical journalists and media.

“There is a limit to what I’ll write. I’m not like Mohammed. I won’t write about the government,” says Shireen Mohammed, 23, an engineer who has been blogging for about four months.

There is of course no shortage of challenges to these young bloggers. On a practical level, one of the greatest obstacles for young Iraqis who want to take part in the online debate is getting online to start with.

Even though the Ministry of Communication has been putting pressure on ISPs to lower their prices, Internet access is still expensive when compared to the average income of Iraqis. And it’s slow.

“It takes at least seven days for Mac users to update their computers,” explains Dina Najem. The frequent power cuts aren’t exactly helpful either.

Although it’s a nuisance, poor Internect access is not the biggest problem for the bloggers.

“The big problem is of course that we cannot speak as freely as we want,” says Dina Najem.

Trust and courage

“We all know that the media is not independent, so people seek the truth on blogs,” explains Bahar Jasim. There is a bond of trust between the author of a blog and its reader, he adds. The other bloggers nod in agreement.

“If I write something that’s incorrect, I am happy to discuss it with my readers and put things right,” explains Bahar Jasim.

The interactivity of the blog is essential. Bloggers reach people in ways no other media platforms in the country manage to, adds Bahar Jasim.

“Our news is close to the street, because we’re on the street,” says Dina Najem. ‘Street language’ used by the bloggers also helps to connect with the reader, says Bahar Jasim. People can more easily identify with news from the street than with official bulletins from broadcasters and newspapers, he adds.

When Mohammed Abdullah worked for the Iraqi weekly Al-Iraq Ghadan his editor would not allow him to cover political issues for fear of reprisal. Online, Mohammed Abdullah and the other bloggers have the freedom to cover what they want.

The exercise of that freedom is predicated on courage.

“When you get the feeling something is wrong, sometimes you just have to write about it,” says Shireen Mohammed.

Journalist Annika Wetterling, visited Iraq as part of an exchange of young, Danish and Iraqi bloggers and journalists organised by Mia Beyer, International Media Support and its partner, the Iraqi Network for Social Media (INSM).

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