Twitter logo
Mastodon logo
Instagram logo
Github logo

Memo from Baghdad: Identifying and Addressing the Needs of Iraqi Documenters

In a moment when free speech is under direct threat in Iraq, our recent needs assessment with the Iraqi Network for Social Media (INSM-Iraq) offers an insightful glimpse into the realities, challenges, and opportunities that Iraq human rights defenders are facing as they document and archive evidence of injustice.

Free speech in Iraq is under severe threat, this time due to drafted digital content regulation that could criminalize investigative journalism and undermine free speech. This dangerous regulation is part of Iraq’s history of internet blocking/shutdowns, website filtering/blocking, censorship, and targeting of human rights defenders and eyewitnesses, all of which significantly impact the safety and work of those documenting and archiving injustices.

OpenArchive and the Iraqi Network for Social Media (INSM-Iraq) – the first network of digital rights defenders and experts in Iraq – have launched the first phase of research to map the needs, risks, and threats of the Iraqi documenter community.

In the Spring of 2023, OpenArchive and INSM jointly circulated a needs assessment survey that yielded insightful information about the challenges and realities shaping the experiences of those working within the Republic of Iraq and the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI).

The survey was broadly circulated to INSM-Iraq’s networks and with over 80 responses, the research outputs represent the diversity of the community and offer OpenArchive a robust dataset to consider the best modes and mechanisms to develop and deliver support to these human rights defenders.

Opportunities for Support

Iraqi survey respondents identified three primary gaps in resources and capacities that shape their everyday workflow: a lack of technical resources and trainings (especially with respect to digital security and protecting sensitive data), outdated and insecure devices and technologies, and gaps in legal protections.

Funding, resource allocation, delivering updated and secure technology, technical training (especially digital security training), and legislative advocacy – to reject the draft digital content regulation and advance protections for documenters – could all play a meaningful role in improving the working experience for Iraqi human rights defenders.

“We learned from the 2019 Iraqi demonstrations that internet outages severely affected the documentation process. In response, we quickly adapted our technology and approach to collect evidence of human rights violations throughout the region during connectivity shutdowns. In continuing this effort to strengthen our documentation work, we are eager to identify and address the ongoing challenges of our community,” says Hayder Hamzoz, founder of INSM-Iraq.

OpenArchive remains committed to supporting our Iraqi counterparts and facilitating trainings on best practices for archiving and digital security in precarious landscapes to help fill some of the existing gaps identified by those on the ground. Likewise, INSM-Iraq continues to host digital security workshops and discussions to tackle these issues.

Additionally, nearly 30% of the survey respondents were already active Save users. Building on this, in the coming months, OpenArchive and INSM will hold trainings and workshops to receive feedback on the app and better understand how we can serve Iraqi documenters and archivists.


OpenArchive approached the survey analysis by grouping participants by role. This method is rooted in findings from previous needs assessments through which OpenArchive identified three key roles within communities: documenter (one who records and documents evidence first-hand), receiver (one who oversees and manages the reception, organization, and potential distribution of media/data), and dual-role (one who plays both a documenting and receiving role in their work).

Threat Landscape for Iraqi Human Rights Defenders

Survey respondents face a complex threat landscape comprising a variety of physical and digital risks. Many of the participants had experienced these risks first-hand. Those working primarily in receiver roles tended to face digital threats such as hacking, misinformation, malware, surveillance, and insecure digital storage. For those who work in documenter roles, these risks also included physical threats, physical attacks, arrest, torture, and facing the confiscation of their technology and devices.

One respondent detailed a violent incident from the October 2019 demonstrations when they were “beaten and electrocuted…then, the most important thing, which was the memory card for the camera, was confiscated.” Another, also arrested during the 2019 October demonstrations, was “subjected to interrogation through the confiscation of my phone and the pictures in it from journalists.”

Many respondents shared their personal experience with being hacked, censored, and surveilled.

Connectivity Constraints

The most prevalent frustration among documenters is inconsistent access to the internet. The documenters are evenly split in their preference for WiFi vs. mobile data, but many respondents note that their preferences are shaped by the circumstances (access to secure WiFi networks, size of data packages, etc.). Every documenter noted that they access the internet all or most of the time (58% all the time, 42% most of the time), and the majority have unlimited data plans to connect to mobile internet.

The receivers are evenly split in their preference for WiFi vs. mobile data, but many receivers also remark that their preferences are shaped by the circumstances. Fifty percent of receivers have access to the internet all the time. Thirty-six percent of receivers have access to the internet most of the time. The remaining 14% noted that their access is only available some of the time or rarely. The majority of receivers have unlimited data plans to connect to mobile internet.

Nearly all respondents in the dual-role category preferred to connect by mobile internet/data. Multiple respondents noted that relying on mobile data provides consistency across geographies locations, which in turn makes mobility easier.

User Personas and Use Cases

OpenArchive is now leveraging the findings from the survey to map INSM-Iraq’s needs and activities in order to build a more responsive framework. This is largely being conducted through user persona building and other research methods outlined in the human-rights-centered-design (HRCD) methodology, that allows us to discover and gain deeper insight into the structural harms that INSM-Iraq and its partners experience.

User personas are modeled after a particular individual or role, but also incorporate fictional aspects that researchers use to create archetypes that describe the behavior patterns, goals, skills, attitudes, and background information, as well as the environment in which the role operates. This HRCD-focused strategy is an intersectional, safe, and secure approach to developing a robust archetype that represents key characteristics relevant to the role.

Read about the following user personas here: Mohamed, Arazu, and Noor.