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Ctrl+Alt+Delete: Iran's Response to the Internet

Article 6 of the Press Law provides that the media may publish “news items except in cases when they violate Islamic principles and codes and public rights” as described in the Article. The prohibited subjects include:

• Publishing atheistic articles or issues that are prejudicial to Islamic codes, or promoting subjects that might damage the foundation of the Islamic Republic,
• Encouraging and instigating individuals and groups to act against the security, dignity and interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran within or outside the country,
• Insulting Islam and its sanctities, or offending the Leader of the Revolution and recognized religious authorities, and
• Publishing statements against the Constitution.

In order to publish, a license must be obtained from the MCIG. To be eligible, one must be at least 25 years old and financially stable, be “free of moral corruption,” possess at least a bachelor’s degree, and support the Constitution.97 Anyone who has publically spoken in favor of the former regime is prohibited from publishing.98

The law creates a Press Supervisory Board (PSB), which consists of “devoted Muslims who posses the required scientific and moral competence and are committed to the Islamic Revolution.” The PSB has the power to examine press violations. The 2000 amendment bestowed the PSB with power to shut down a publication and, within a few weeks, transfer the file to a court for further review.99 The law provides that crimes “can be examined by competent general or Revolutionary courts in accordance with the laws pertaining to inherent competency.” “Either way, the court must be open and in the presence of a jury.”100

The 2000 amendment also expanded the reach of the Press Law to cover all electronic publications.101 If the writings of bloggers and journalists on the Internet are considered “publications,” they must secure licenses from the PSB. Yet notwithstanding the discretionary powers granted regulatory agencies under the Press Law, examination of the regime’s record of prosecutions of bloggers suggests that the Judiciary generally avoids prosecutions under this law. This is presumably because Article 168 of the Iranian Constitution mandates that “political and press offenses will be tried openly and in the presence of a jury, in a court of justice.”102 In order to circumvent the requirements of an open court and a jury, prosecutors generally bring charges under the more restrictive Penal Code—and not the Press Law—when targeting individuals for their expressive activities.103

The Press Law, on its face, fails to meet Iran’s international legal obligations. Article 19 of the ICCPR protects political expression.104 It provides as follows:

1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.
2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.
3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:
               a. For respect of the rights or reputations of others;
               b. For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.

The Human Rights Committee (HRC)105 has made it clear that in conjunction with Article 25, Article 19 affirms that citizens should be granted wide access to information that will allow them to participate in the social and political sphere of their society.106

[97]Id. art. 9.
[98]Id. art. 9, note 5.
[99]Id. art. 12, note.
[100]Id. art. 34.
[101]Id. art. 1, note 3.
[102]IRANIAN CONST., supra note 48, art. 168; Press Law, supra note 95, arts. 36-44. Article 168 of the Iranian Constitution requires that the government specifically define “political offenses” in order to protect political prisoners. Despite this mandate, however, the government has failed to pass any laws addressing this particular issue. According to Iranian legal scholar Mehrangiz Kar, the government’s failure to define political offenses has allowed the regime to abuse the system and crush political dissent. Mehrangiz Kar, The Silencing of Dissidents: A Legal Analysis, at 14-15 (published by IHRDC, 2007 at www.iranhrdc.org).
[103]See, e.g., Press Law, supra note 95, art. 1, note 2; see also Namihyyih Shahroudi darbarihyyih Tuqif-i Saythayih Interneti [Shahroudi’s Letter Regarding the Closure of Internet Sites], BBC PERSIAN, 9/6/1387 [Aug. 30, 2008], available (in Persian) at http://www.bbc.co.uk/persian/iran/story/2008/08/080830_shahroudi_filtering.shtml (last visited Apr. 22, 2009) (discussing the Prosecutor General of Tehran’s attempt to indict website administrators under the Penal Code instead of the Press Law). It should be noted, however, that the Press Law references the Islamic Penal Code. See, e.g., Press Law, supra note 95, art. 6, note 2.
[104]Nqalula Mpandanjila et al. v. Zaire, Communication No. 138/1983 (26 March 1986), U.N. Doc. Supp. No. 40 (A/41/40) at 121 (1986). Henry Kalenga v Zambia, Communication No 326/1988 U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/48/D/326/1988, Aduayom et al. v. Togo, Communications Nos. 422/1990, 423/1990 and 424/1990 U.N. Doc. Communications Nos. 422/1990, 423/1990 and 424/1990.
[105]The HRC was established to monitor compliance with the ICCPR. It is empowered to comment on communications received from individuals from states that have ratified the Optional Protocol to the Covenant who claim to have suffered violations of any of the rights protected by the Covenant. Iran has not ratified the Optional Protocol. See ICCPR, supra note 24, arts. 28-45.
[106]Robert W. Gauthier v. Canada, Communication No 633/1995, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/65/D/633/1995 ¶ 13.4 (5 May 1999), (“citizens, in particular through the media, should have wide access to information and the opportunity to disseminate information and opinions about the activities of elected bodies and their members.”) Article 25 of the ICCPR guarantees that “[e]very citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in Article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions.”

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Free Speech, Right to Protest, Cyber Journalism, Torture, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment, Punishment, Due Process, Right to an Attorney, Free Association, Political Freedom, Equality Before the Law, Discrimination