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


On September 27, 2007, in an appearance at the National Press Club in Washington D.C., Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded to a question regarding limits on expression by asserting that “freedom is flowing at its highest level” in Iran. He later insisted that “all voices should be heard.”1 Despite these declarations and notwithstanding the Islamic Republic’s international and constitutional obligations, the Islamic Republic of Iran consistently violates the fundamental human right to freedom of expression of its residents. In fact, Iran has been called the Middle East’s biggest prison for journalists and regularly ranks close to the bottom in the annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RWB).2

Iranians have been battling for their rights to free expression for over a century. Periods of relative freedom have been followed by severe crackdowns on expression of dissent. Iran experienced a period of relatively free and open expression following the election of President Khatami in 1997. However, within a few years, conservative elements aligned with the Supreme Leader cracked down on traditional media outlets—newspapers, radio and television. To survive, many editors resorted to self-censorship. Journalists and others engaged in expression faced enormous obstacles in reaching their audiences. At the same time, the Internet was becoming a viable means of mass communication. Consequently, many journalists and others migrated to the Internet, creating blogs and websites.

The regime has responded by controlling and altering the Web accessed by Iranians through several overlapping strategies. It applies existing laws that severely regulate traditional expressive activity— newspapers, radio and television—to Internet expression. It is also developing Internet-specific laws and creating multiple regulatory bodies charged with Internet oversight. Thus, simply to access the Internet, Iranians must often navigate through a legal and administrative maze.

In addition to using laws that restrict content, the regime is experimenting with technical methods to control and alter the Web. These include shutting down websites at their sources, blocking specific websites so users cannot access them, filtering out large parts of the Web, restricting Internet speeds, and flooding the Web with the regime’s ideas and opinions.

At the same time, Iran has continued to use some of the more traditional means of repression: cyberjournalists and bloggers have been arrested, detained and tortured. Faced with threats against their lives and the safety of their families, many engaged in self-censorship or fled Iran. Some paid with their lives.

All of these methods are intended to increase the price of expression in general, and Internet expression in particular. As Sina Motalebi, an Iranian blogger who was arrested and interrogated for his Internet activity, explained:

This report documents and analyzes the suppression of Iranian bloggers, journalists and other Internet users by the Islamic Republic. A brief overview of the history of expressive freedom in Iran before the 1979 revolution is followed by a more detailed description of repression by the Islamic Republic. This is followed by brief descriptions of the more prevalent laws used by the regime to suppress Internet expression and an analysis of their legal legitimacy. The final sections document and analyze the regime’s attempts to control the Internet through technical means, such as site blocking and content filtration, and through traditional repressive measures, including the arrest, detention and torture of bloggers and journalists.

Much of the material presented in this report originated in interviews conducted by IHRDC with targeted bloggers and journalists who were forced to flee Iran.

I had written in my weblog [that] blogging is a free way for expressing your views and beliefs, without any costs, without any need [for] technical knowledge or financial power, things like that; and the [interrogator] told me: “we want to prove that you are wrong. There are several costs; there are very high costs to blogging, and we want to make you an example of that. Yes, we can’t trace every single blogger who criticizes our government, but we can scare them out.”3

1 Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Remarks at the National Press Club (Sept. 24, 2007), in President Ahmadinejad Delivers Remarks to the National Press Club, WASH. POST, Sept. 24, 2007, available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/09/24/AR2007092401084.html (last visited Apr. 23, 2009)..

2 REPORTERS WITHOUT BORDERS, IRAN – ANNUAL REPORT (2006), available at http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=17198 (last visited Apr. 15, 2009); see also id., WORLD PRESS FREEDOM INDEX (2007), available at http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=24025 (last visited Apr. 15, 2009).

3 Event video: Irrepressible podcast, held by Amnesty and The Observer (June 6, 2007) available at http://www.amnesty.org.uk/content.asp?CategoryID=10905 [hereinafter Amnesty Event].

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Tagged as:

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