by Omid Memarian, Inter Press Service
January 10, 2007
In a bid to clamp down even harder on information disseminated through the Internet, Iran’s hardliner government has demanded the registration of all websites and weblogs sourced in the country by Mar. 1, drawing objections from many Iranian bloggers who say the move clearly violates free speech. A committee of government officials, including members of the intelligence, judiciary, telecommunications, and culture and Islamic guidance ministries, will be in charge of approving the content of websites. The committee is commissioned with blocking or filtring websites or weblogs that they deem illegal.Over the last few years, the government has banned and filtred thousands of websites and weblogs without explanation. However, for the first time, the new law is specific about what kinds of content are not allowed.
Website and weblog registrars must also provide personal information about themselves. Bloggers or website managers who fail to do so risk being shut down, penalised and if the case ends up in court, the accused may find themselves in prison.
Some activists plan to defy the new requirements. Farnaz Seify, a feminist blogger in Tehran, told IPS, “The government’s new policy of forcing registrations indicates that the authorities are making it clear that no one is permitted to criticise or even discuss religion, government’s policies, revolution, ayatollahs and social problems.”
“Freedom of speech doesn’t have such restrictions and limitations — however, Iran’s government ignores this basic right of human beings,” she said. “With this new regulation, the government insults both me and my intelligence. I will not register my personal website. I don’t need to get permission to have freedom of expression.”
Farnaz, whose blog has been filtred because of her outspoken feminist content, added, “I know they will censor me again. It shows their power but not their legitimacy. I will not legitimise their anti-humanitarian law by obeying that law, nor will I respect it.”
The new law requires the weblog or website registrar to provide their name, address, telephone number, intended audience, approximate number of readers and other detailed information. Comprehensive restrictions are placed on content that deals with a range of issues from criticism of religious figures to sexual matters as well as content considered offensive to the Ayatollah Khomeini (the founder of the Islamic Republic), Ayatollah Khamenei (right), (Iran’s Supreme Leader), or that is deemed slanderous of Islamic laws.
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which drafted the new law, says that the measures are designed to support legal websites and remove the “illegal” ones.
“This law is intended to make the Internet atmosphere clean and safe,” it announced.
For many Iranians, the Internet is the only public arena where they can share and exchange their thoughts, concerns and emotions on matters ranging from sexuality to social problems and contentious issues such as women’s rights and criticism of the current regime and its policies. While the Internet has provided a relatively safe haven for freedom of speech, critics of the new law say the new requirements will effectively shut down this last refuge of communication.
Since 2002, the Islamic government has employed a highly restrictive filtring system, effectively banning many websites and weblogs for Iranians inside the country. The state controls all Internet Service Providers (ISPs), resulting in the most censored Internet sphere after China.
Not only does the new law grant the Islamic Republic full control over the content of all websites launched within Iran, but now authorities can filtre the thousands of websites and weblogs written in Farsi outside of Iran.
In the last few years — prior to the new law — many journalists and bloggers have been arrested and sent to jail. Arash Ashoriania, an Iranian photo-blogger and winner of the Reporters Without Borders Best of the Blogs competition organised by the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle in 2006, told IPS that this law will have no impact on his activities since “my blog has already been filtred by the authorities without any clear reason and I have nothing to lose by refusing to register my website.”
Another well-known Iranian blogger and journalist, Hanif Mazruie, who was arrested and held in solitary confinement for more than 90 days in 2004, believes the new regulation will have only a short-term effect.
“Iranians are continuously working on new ways of going beyond the filtres. These policies just make them more industrious in ignoring proxies and obtaining the information they want,” Mazruie told IPS in a telephone interview from Tehran.
Most political websites and weblogs that are critical of the government have already been blocked. With the increased monitoring, this has paved the way for official suppression and control of the Internet.
“Political blogs and websites are the targeted group,” Mazruie. “Also NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and human rights organisations which use the Internet as their sole means of communication are the main groups to be restricted. The government wants to restrict, stop and warn those who write anonymously.”
“The intelligence officials who ran the parallel security forces during President Khatami’s tenure (1997-2005) are now part of this government and they are eager to continue the crackdown on Internet activists now that Ahmadinejad has come to power,” he said. “However, they have not been successful.”
Journalist and blogger Roozbeh Mirebrahimi told IPS that the registration policy also violates Iran’s constitution. “The approval of the cabinet doesn’t make the government’s decisions legitimate. It should pass it via the parliament. However, it reflects the nature of the conservatives in Iran who easily close their eyes to freedom of speech,” he said.
“All the experiences they have include threatening, arresting and intimidation of Internet activists and journalist,” noted Mirebrahimi, who was jailed for his Internet writings in 2004 and has since been released on bail.
“The government wants to control the virtual atmosphere by all means. However, it is impossible to control the Internet for a long time. Technology and the passionate people who want to increase their awareness and knowledge will find a way to move forward and the government is just wasting its time and money,” he said.
RELATED READING: The Columbia Journalism Review has a new article on Arab, Middle Eastern, and Israeli bloggers, by CJR staffer Gal Beckerman, which you can read by clicking here.
IRAN'S SEXUAL MINORITIES-- A HUMAN RIGHTS SYMPOSIUM: An important all-day symposium on the persecution and rights of Iranian sexual minorities and women will be held from 11 AM to 6 PM on January 27 in Canada at the University of Toronto. It is organized by the Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization (PGLO), which recently changed its name to Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO), and the group's dedicated Toronto-based General Secretary, my friend Arsham Parsi (right), who last year was granted asylum in Canada as a sexual refugee from persecution in Iran for being gay. Speakers will include several leading Canadian political figures noted for their human rights advocacy, Iranian academics in exile, Iranian gay and women's rights activists, and more. If you're anywhere near Toronto on January 27, get yourself over to the University of Toronto's Hart House Debate Room for what promises to be a highly informative day of debate and discussion. For more information on this PGLO/IRQO symposium, click here.