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

The growth of mass media in political discourse both resulted in and was nurtured by the landslide victory of reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami, who became President of Iran in 1997. Khatami sought to shift the Islamic Republic from “a system that relies on restriction as its main strategy” to one that uses restriction “occasionally to deal tactically with sensitive and vital matters.”60 In line with this goal and in order to create further support for the reformists’ agenda, he appointed Ata’ollah Mohajerani as Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Mohajerani, an academic and historian, reinstated a large number of licenses for publications and generally removed many of the restrictions that had stifled access to expression.61

These political developments raised the stakes for engaging in expression by threatening the most dangerous elements of the regime with exposure.62 A year before the election of Khatami, the Majlis had passed Book 5 of the Penal Code, Article 609 of which made it a crime to insult almost any government employee for actions taken during the course of employment.63 The Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, publically warned that “everyone must pay attention to the Red Line.”64

The Red Line has never been defined but continues to be used by the regime to denote the official and unofficial censorship rules that writers, editors, artists and publishers must not cross if they hope to avoid retaliation. This lack of definition is made possible by the vague provisions in the Islamic Republic laws that begin with the Iranian Constitution and extend throughout the codes. For example, Article 24 of the Constitution provides that “publications and the press have freedom of expression except when it is detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public,” but fails to define “fundamental principles of Islam.”65 In November 2003, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression Ambeyi Ligabo investigated the parameters of the Red Line during his mission to Iran. He found that, even among clerics, there is a wide variety of often-conflicting criteria used to determine when the Red Line is crossed.66 He concluded that this subjective and arbitrary interpretation67 leads to arbitrary denial of rights.68

Crossing the Red Line can result in any number of consequences, the most serious of which— extrajudicial killings—became frequent in the late nineties. Writers were killed in car accidents, shot in staged robberies, stabbed, and injected with potassium to induce heart attacks.69 Culminating in a string of murders in late 1998, the coverage of these attacks resulted in such public outrage that they were investigated by Khatami’s government and even denounced by the Supreme Leader.70 In fact, media coverage and investigative journalism into the murders expanded the demand for newspapers.71 Under the new policy, newspapers and magazines were allowed to “grow like mushrooms.”72

[60]KHATAMI, supra note 31, at 112.
[61]SEMATI, supra note 14, at 6.
[62]See AFSHARI, supra note 4, at 188.
[63]Qanun-i Mujazat-i Islami [Islamic Penal Code] 1379 [2000], art. 609 (Iran) [hereinafter Iran Penal Code], available at http://iranhrdc.org/httpdocs/English/iraniancodes.htm. Article 609 states: “Anyone who insults any of the heads of the three branches, or presidential deputies or ministers, or any of the representatives of the Islamic Consultative Majlis, or members of the Assembly of Experts, or members of the Guardian Council, or the judges or the members of the Accounts tribunals, or employees of ministries, government offices or municipalities in connection with their positions or duties, may be sentenced to three to six months of imprisonment, up to 74 lashes, or fined 50,000 to 1 million rials.
[64]See AFSHARI, supra note 4, at 196.
[65]IRANIAN CONST., supra note 48, art. 24.
[66]UN Commission on Human Rights, Report submitted by the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Ambeyi Ligabo: Addendum Mission to the Islamic Republic of Iran, ¶ 102, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/2004/62/Add.2 (Jan. 12, 2004), available at http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/country,,,MISSION,IRN,,4090ffed0,0.html (last visited Apr. 21, 2009) [hereinafter Ligabo Report].
[67]Id. ¶ 95.
[68]See UN Commission on Human Rights, Report of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention: addendum: Visit to the Islamic Republic of Iran (15-27 February 2003), ¶ 42, U.N. Doc . E/CN.4/2004/3/Add.2 (and Corr.1) (June 27, 2003), available at http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/4090ffd30.html (last visited Apr. 21, 2009).
[69]EBADI, supra note 56, at 131-32. In a well-known incident that occurred in August 1996, a group of writers woke up to find that their bus driver had abandoned them and the bus was headed toward a ravine. This was the second time he had tried to exit the bus while sending it over a cliff. They were able to stop the bus and were later picked up by a security officer and interrogated. EBADI, supra note 56, at 128-29.
[70]Id. at 135-36.
[71]Id. at 139.
[72]AFSHARI, supra note 4, at 208.

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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