[Published here on October 5, 2019]
Baghdad (AFP) – With secret satellites, pricey messages abroad and clandestine file transfers, young Iraqis are circumventing an internet blackout aimed at stifling several days of bloody protests in the capital and beyond.
Authorities restricted access to Facebook and Whatsapp after anti-government demonstrations began on Tuesday, before ordering a total network shutdown on Wednesday.
The termination of Wifi, 3G and 4G access left protestors with just regular phone calls and mobile messages — a few notable exceptions aside.
Ahmad, 29, works at an internet service provider that helped implement the government’s shutdown, but still has internet access at its headquarters.
“I go to the protests in the morning and shoot video on my phone, then use the internet at work to upload them to Facebook or send them to media outside Iraq,” he said, using a fake name for fear of retribution or legal action by the government.
Protesters say the internet outage is an attempt to suppress reports of security forces using indiscriminate force including tear gas, live rounds and water cannons.
Ahmad showed AFP footage he planned to send to international media later that evening — shots could be heard fired across a mostly-empty street in Baghdad as he and fellow protesters took cover behind a concrete barrier.
“Friends are even giving me the footage they shoot on flash drives so everyone outside Iraq can see what’s happening here,” he said.
Before Tuesday, many Iraqis had taken to Facebook and Instagram to call for initial protests against a range of grievances: unemployment, mass government corruption, nepotism, poor public services, and more.
Images of young men and women marching towards the emblematic Tahrir Square flooded social media the first day, using the hashtag #save_Iraqi_people.
When restrictions on Facebook began, Iraqis acted quickly; many downloaded virtual private network (VPN) applications.
Others even began surreptitiously posting the details of the next protests in the comments section of Cinemana, a popular streaming service in Iraq.
But those avenues were shut off by the systemic shutdown.
Those that could afford to therefore erected costly satellites on their rooftops to get a window into the outside world.
– ‘Follow the gunfire’ –
Nearly 100 people have died in the demonstrations since Tuesday, most of them protesters but also personnel from the security forces, according to authorities.
“They’re trying to fight us not just with arms, but with this blackout,” said 31-year-old protester Osama Mohammad.
“We used to check the different neighbourhoods’ Facebook pages to know where to go for protests. Now we just follow the sound of gunfire,” Mohammad told AFP.
“If they cut off regular phone lines, we’ll be completely blind,” he noted.
For 25-year-old women’s rights activist Rasha, taking to the streets carries too much risk, but she says she has found a different way to get involved.
Every day, her male friends text her dozens of updates from protest squares across the country, which she then texts and phones through to friends in the United Arab Emirates and Europe.
“I’m an intermediary. I can’t protest myself so this is the least I can do,” she said, telling AFP the phone credit she buys has cost her around $100 (90 euros) per day for the last three days.
Rasha, who comes from Baghdad, is also saving videos and other unpublished material from one of the first protests that turned violent. She attended that initial demonstration.
“They think we’ll forget they fired at us, they think people won’t know. But I’ve got the videos and I’ll publish everything I saw that day the minute the internet comes back,” she said.
Jaafar Raad, an unemployed 29-year-old Iraqi who has frequently protested, is also storing dozens of images and videos to release once the blackout is lifted.
He even records voice notes from the protests themselves in applications like Whatsapp and Facebook, so that the audio messages will automatically send to friends abroad and international media outlets as soon as the internet returns.
“People must know what happened to us. This is so we can hold those behind the violence accountable,” he told AFP.