Iraq is considering blocking websites deemed pornographic or that incite violence or crime, triggering fears of a return to Saddam Hussein-style state censorship and government propaganda.
Iraq's Interior Ministry said earlier this week it was looking into banning certain websites, including those it judged are connected to crimes such as money laundering, robbery, prostitution, bomb-making and "terrorism."
"We think freedom is relative, not absolute. Some would consider this as restricting freedom, while others (would not)," an Interior Ministry statement said. It did not give a timeline for a decision on the issue.
Some Iraqi lawmakers said they were concerned that such censorship could be used for political or sectarian ends. Years of slaughter between the country's minority Sunni amd majority Shi'ite Muslims have only abated in the last 18 months.
The Iraqi government is Shi'ite Arab-led.
"This could be a way to restrict freedoms guaranteed by Iraq's constitution ... There must be laws and conditions preventing the government misusing this project," said Omar al-Jubouri, a Sunni Muslim lawmaker.
Should a censorship law be drafted by the cabinet, several parliamentary committees would have a chance to modify the bill before it was sent to parliament for ratification, said Mokhlas Belasim, of the chamber's committee for teaching and education.
It was not clear whether such a bill would be drafted, or if the government would unilaterally impose censorship rules.
"We want the law to pass through parliament ... Censorship is a double edged sword, and it could send the country back to a dictatorship, but in new clothing," Belasim said.
Under Saddam, heavy censorship was the rule. State propaganda dominated the media, glorifying the government and demonizing enemies like the United States, Iran and Israel.
Iraq's 2005 constitution enshrines freedom of press and publication unless they "violate public order or morality."
Any ban would not include websites related to "cultural, scientific, artistic, social, economic, (or) touristic knowledge," the ministry said. But an Iraqi watchdog group feared the law would still go too far.
"We support taking such steps on websites that have an effect on children and incite terror, but we are sure that the goal behind that is political," said Ziad al-Ajili, head of Journalistic Freedoms Observatory.
"There is a message behind that that says: 'Don't publish against me. I can censor you'."
Iraq's Ministry of Culture has already revived regulations forbidding the import of some books. The fall of Saddam in 2003 led to a flood of new media in Iraq as border controls dissolved and publication laws eased.
"This is the thin end of the wedge. It starts with the internet, then moves to satellite TV ... We'll be like those other Arab states, where everything's forbidden," said Baghdad internet cafe owner Ahmed Falayeh.
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