The authorities in Iraq’s second largest city, Basra, have inaugurated a square where people can freely express their opinions to an audience. But unlike Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park in London, the speakers in Basra have to comply with a number of regulations. For instance, they will not be able to criticise people by name.
Some Iraqis fear the real goal of “Opinion Square”is to move protest rallies from the city centre to a location which won’t disturb the local authorities, says Maijd al Braikan, a Basra-based journalist in an interview with RNW.
Presidential Palaces Compound
Opinion Square is not actually a square but a one-kilometre street, linking Corniche Road to the Basra Presidential Palaces Compound. Corniche Road, located on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, is one of the most important tourist attractions in Basra, Iraq’s economic capital. Towards the south is Presidential Palaces Street, as it’s known by locals. It’s a natural extension of Corniche Road and leads to the Presidential Palaces Compound, built by former dictator Saddam Hussein. Since the fall of the regime, it has been the headquarters of British forces in the city. In future, the compound is likely to be turned into a tourist resort.
Rules and regulations
Opinion Square will be open to anyone who wants to make a speech or express an opinion every Friday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. But the restrictions imposed raise questions about how much freedom will actually be allowed.
Besides barring speakers from criticising people by name, the authorities have also banned speeches that might incite hatred or violence. According to journalist Majid Al Braikan, the local government justified these conditions by saying that they “did not want the square to become a platform for defaming or slandering people”.
Opinion Square has received a lukewarm welcome from the citizens of Basra. Many people have commented on Facebook that the real goal of the square is to keep protesters away from the city centre and the headquarters of the local government. According to Al Braikan, “over the past two years, Basra has witnessed dozens of demonstrations, protests and sit-ins. People have been denouncing government inaction and demanding stronger action against administrative corruption and better economic conditions. Some people worry that the authorities opened Opinion Square on the eve of provincial elections just to isolate protestors in a specific place.”
Basra officials, however, say Opinion Square is not an alternative place to protest or assemble but a place to express opinions. They have urged writers, poets and artists to gather on Fridays to present paintings, poems, literature or any other art form that would help stimulate public debate.
Journalist Majid Al Braikan was present at the symbolic inauguration of Opinion Square a week ago, along with local government representatives and ordinary people. One of those present had a portable loudspeaker and used the occasion to denounce corruption and demand reforms.
Local authorities have pledged not to impose any controls on speakers and to provide security. But there’s a contradiction between “not imposing control” and “obliging speakers to observe regulations imposed by the local government”.
One of the people Braikan interviewed last Friday turned out to be an intelligence officer. “I found this out by accident”, says Braikan. “For me, it wasn’t a very encouraging start to Opinion Square because only a small number of people were present at the inauguration, mostly by accident”.