Iran's Independent Journalists under Pressure

Walking A Tightrope

Since Ahmadinejad came to power in Iran, the independent, critical press has seen its already restricted political freedom being eroded even further. But hardliners are also increasingly zeroing in on bloggers and members of Internet forums. By Arian Fariborz

Computer screen in an Internet café in Tehran (photo: Arian Fariborz)
What is allowed and what is forbidden? It is almost impossible to say what the censorship authorities consider to be acceptable on the Internet

​​The same overwhelming feeling of uncertainly comes over Mohsen every time he returns from work in the northern part of Teheran and switches on his PC.

Has his website been blocked again for the umpteenth time or is it only reachable by those who are willing to take a rather extensive detour around the Internet to find it?

The 27-year-old IT engineer and freelance journalist has been keeping a weblog for the past three to four years. He is one of the best known bloggers in the Iranian capital. Mohsen was active in the student movement for quite some time, an involvement that cost him a week in Teheran's notorious Evin Prison.

The online community is making the mullahs nervous

Mohsen is sceptical. He believes that the blockage or filtering of websites is not an isolated occurrence and that the days of the Internet as the medium for free expression in Iran are numbered.

"My blog is blocked on a number of Internet service providers," he says, "despite the fact that only a very small part of it is truly political. The situation has got much, much worse over the past two years or so, particularly under President Ahmadinejad. I think that websites in this country are systematically filtered and blocked. They specifically seek out political content and anything that runs contrary to the opinion of the regime."

The cyber revolution in Iran is making the mullahs nervous. There is a good reason for this. Since the year 2000, an increasing number of pro-reform newspapers have been banned. Journalists and writers have reacted to this form of censorship by turning to the Internet to voice their opinions.

Playing cat-and-mouse with the authorities

Many journalists who had grown tired of the cat-and-mouse game with the censorship authorities and the country's anti-reform legal system decided to establish online newspapers or express their political opinions in weblogs.

However, the state has been keeping a very vigilant watch over anything on the Internet that it considers to be Western, decadent, anti-Islamic, or counter-revolutionary. Today, online media are either heavily filtered or blocked; dissidents are being arrested.

In 2004, the mullahs prepared their first major strike against Iran's blogging community. Regime critics like Hanif Mazroui, Arash Sigartshi, or Modschtaba Saminedjad were arrested, charged, and temporarily put in prison. Information portals like Blogfa.com, Blogger, or Persian Blog have been under surveillance for quite some time.

In recent years, conservative members of parliament have repeatedly called on the government to ban popular youth discussion forums such as Orkut or Yahoo Messenger.

Mohsen believes that while many are increasingly looking for a political form of communication, they also want to have fun, both of which they were able to do in the virtual social network known as Orkut.

"That was hugely popular with many people. But after about three or four months, the site was completely blocked. Simply because the site was popular and people could communicate with each other and because the number of members was growing steadily. They don't want people to communicate with one another."

Grey area

Mohsen goes on to say that the hardliners fear that political groups could organise themselves via networks like Orkut. However, it is not only portals with social and political content that are falling foul of the censors, but also sites like Youtube, Wikipedia, or Amazon.

But what is allowed and what is forbidden? This is a difficult question to answer because it is almost impossible to say what the censorship authorities consider to be acceptable. It is a grey area.

According to the organisation "Reporters Without Borders", censorship in Iran is "the rule rather than the exception." According to the organisation's most recent report, Iran is one of the 20 most restrictive countries in the world in terms of press freedom.

Since the beginning of the year, when a law came into force obliging all operators of internet services and bloggers to report to the censorship authorities and obtain a permit within two months, the freedom of online journalists and bloggers in Iran has been curtailed even further. Those who flout the law face not only the shutdown of their websites, but heavy penalties.

The consequence of this is that Iranian writers and journalists no longer write as extensively and freely as they used to in the past. Moreover, they are risking fewer political or blog-related activities because they have simply become too dangerous and can lead to imprisonment.

Self-censorship as the only way out

Many journalists are also being warned not to make contact with foreign countries or to provide western media representatives with information. The new climate of political control, censorship, and repression is having a serious effect on Iran's media representatives. According to "Reporters Without Borders", many journalists consider self-censorship to be the only way to continue with their work.

Those who dare to break the silence or to paint an objective picture of the social and political situation in Iran face more than just censorship, they also face imprisonment or the closure of their offices.

This is exactly what happened to the pro-reform newspaper Ham Mihan, which was run by the former mayor of Teheran, Gholam Hossein Karbashi, and the online news agency ILNA, both of which were closed because they accused President Ahmadinejad of not keeping his promise to solve Iran's massive economic problems.

Arian Fariborz

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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