• Population: 68,070,000
  • Internet users: 3,168,000 (2002)
  • Average charge for 20 hours of connection: 5 euros
  • DAI*: 0.43
  • Situation**: very serious

The Iranian regime censors thousands of websites it considers "non-Islamic" and harasses and imprisons online journalists. Internet filtering was increased in the run-up to the February 2004 parliamentary elections, at which the hardliners strengthened their grip on the country. But despite this, the Internet is flourishing, with fierce debate and weblogs ("blogs") sprouting up all the time.

The Internet has grown faster in Iran than any other Middle Eastern country since 2000 and has become an important medium, providing fairly independent news and an arena for vigorous political discussion for more than three million users.

Websites, like the press, reflect the split between reformists and hardliners in the regime, which has a hardline Supreme Guide of the Islamic Revolution (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) as head of state and a reformist president (Mohammad Khatami) whose power is quite limited.

Though the authorities crack down hard on freedom of expression, civil society remains active and keen to debate the country's affairs. But the 20 February 2004 parliamentary elections, which gave all power to the hardliners, may reduce Internet users' freedom to discuss social issues.

The weblog phenomenon

Weblogs - personal or collective websites where people comment on current events - are a new and promising development which is having a big impact on society. Vice-President Mohammad Ali Abtahi himself set up one of these mini-sites, where he described daily progress (with photos as well) at a major international conference he was attending. His "blog" can still be seen at www.webnevesht.com. The Supreme Guide, Ali Khamenei, launched his own website, www.khamenei.ir, in May 2004.

Weblogs are much used at times of crisis, such as during the June 2003 student demonstrations, when they were the main source of news about the protests and helped the students to rally and organise.

The regime is aware of the growing influence of weblogs and is trying to restrict them by filtering sites that host them and set them up, such as www.geocities.com, www.ifrance.com, www.tripod.com and www.freeservers.com.

Iran also has between 20 and 30 major political websites, most of them (such as www.emrooz.ws, blocked from inside Iran since February 2003) close to the reformists. But the hardliners have their publications online too and each side uses the Internet for propaganda.

Quite effective control

Censorship, officially to protect the public from immorality, has quickly spread to political content. In fact, it is now easier to access pornographic sites than reformist ones. Nearly 10,000 sites are thought to be blocked from inside the country.

Privately-owned ISPs began to develop timidly in Iran in 1994, in the shadow of the big state-run ISP, Data Communication Company of Iran (DCI), which is directly controlled by the intelligence ministry. They have to be approved by both this ministry and the culture and Islamic guidance ministry and must have filters for websites and personal e-mail. All users are required to promise in writing not to access "non-Islamic" sites.

A commission of officials from the ministries of intelligence and culture and Islamic guidance and from the state-run radio and TV was set up in January 2003 to make a list of "illegal" news sites and supply the names to the posts and telecommunications ministry, which passed them on to the ISPs to filter out.

Prosector-general Abdolnabi Namazi announced a new commission in early May to deal with online offences. He said authors of material posted on websites created in Iran would risk prosecution if they did not respect the national constitution and the press law. He added that since there was no Internet law yet, courts could use the press law, which provides for heavy prison sentences.

Justice ministry spokesman Golam Hossin Elham said in June that the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution was drafting an Internet law that would ban criticism of the regime and its officials, buying and selling alcohol and distorting the words of the Supreme Guide, Ali Khamenei, or the late Ayatollah Khomeiny.

Deputy posts, telecommunications and information technology minister Massud Davari-Nejad said in May his ministry had blocked access to "immoral sites and political sites that insult the country's political and religious leaders." When people try to access an "illegal" site, they are warned that "on orders from the posts and telecommunications ministry, visiting this site is not permitted."

Measures were also taken against ISPs. Five privately-owned ones in the northern city of Tabriz were shut down in early May because they had not installed filters against banned sites. At least seven ISPs were also closed down in Teheran for the same reasons.

The hardliners were not the only ones trying to control the Internet. In May, two reformist figures, government spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh and posts, telecommunications and information technology minister Ahmad Motamedi, warned ISPs to apply the new rules and said the system of filters was quite legal.

Cybercafés under surveillance

Owners of cybercafés, which are very popular with the young people, students and intellectuals, especially in the capital, who are most of the country's Internet users, ask customers to disconnect if they catch them looking at "non-Islamic" sites.

The regime stepped up its control of cybercafés in May 2001 and in November that year, the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, chaired by President Khatami but dominated by hardliners, ordered all privately-owned ISPs to shut down or put themselves under government control. The measure went into effect at the end of the year.

Repression increases in run-up to elections

Online publications, like the written press, were harassed by the regime in the weeks before the February 2004 elections.

The independent and very popular online paper www.gooya.comwas temporarily blocked in early January. Many of the 50 or so weblogs discussing the elections were also blocked, including http://sobhaneh.com and a collective weblog giving news about the reformist boycott of the vote (http://home.c2i.net/hasanagha/tahrim/tahrimmajles01.htm). News site www.rouydad.ws was officially cut off on 18 February and the Reporters Without Borders website www.rsf.org (which is also in Persian) has been inaccessible in Iran since early February.

Teheran's chief prosecutor, Said Mortazavi, who is very harsh on the reformist media, announced on 23 February the closure of the reformist news site www.emrooz.ws, which had been blocked in Iran since the beginning of the year but was still accessible from abroad. Mortazavi's action could lead to a complete shutdown of the site, which he claimed was "harming national security."

Cyber-dissidents still harassed and imprisoned

Javad Tavaf, editor of the personal website Rangin Kaman and one of the leaders of the student protest movement, was arrested at his home on 16 January 2003 by people who said they were military court officials. But when his family went to the court, they were told he had not been arrested. Tavaf had earlier been arrested during the July 1987 student revolt. His website had been very popular in 2002, when he harshly criticised the Supreme Guide, Ali Khamenei. He was freed on 18 January.

Mohsen Sazegara, one of the pioneers of the reformist media and editor of the news site www.alliran.net, was arrested at his home on 18 February by plainclothes state security agents, his house and office searched and a large amount of written material seized. A week earlier, he had posted an article on the website calling for reform of the national constitution.

He also wrote that the wishes of Iranians had been "hijacked by six religious figures on the Council of Guardians," a body controlled by hardliners and appointed by Khamenei which supervises elections and ratifies laws. "The past five years have shown that the religious authorities cannot be reformed," he wrote, saying the Supreme Guide had "dictatorial" powers.

He was freed on 22 February but arrested again on 15 June amid student demonstrations. His family paid bail of six billion rials (600,000 euros) but he was not released. He staged prison hunger-strikes lasting 56 and 23 days despite having serious heart problems. He was charged by the Teheran revolutionary court for "undermining national security" and "insulting the Guide." He was sentenced on 27 September to a year in prison after a secret trial, but was freed on 6 October.

Sina Motallebi, a journalist with the reformist daily Hayat-é-Now and editor of the website www.rooznegar.com, was arrested on 20 April after being summoned the previous day by the Teheran police's morality section, Adareh Amaken, which is close to the intelligence services.

After the closure of the paper in January, he set up the website and used it to defend one of the paper's journalists, Alireza Eshraghi, who had been arrested on 11 January. The site, which especially defends imprisoned journalists, had angered some legal officials and also a number of reformists who he criticised for their silence about the arrests of journalists. He was accused of "undermining national security through artistic activity." He had been summoned several times by legal officials and by Adareh Amaken. He was freed on 12 May and had to leave the country. He is continuing his journalistic work from abroad.

The Supreme National Security Council, headed by President Khatami, banned the press at the end of May from publishing a letter sent by more than 100 reformist MPs to the Supreme Guide demanding reforms and warning that the regime would be in danger if he continued to block them. They said most Iranians were unhappy or disappointed, most educated people remained silent or left the country, as had most of its financial reserves, and that the country was entirely surrounded by foreign forces.

No Iranian newspaper printed the letter, which was made public on 24 May, and it could only be read for a few hours on the reformist website Rouydad and the site of the student news agency ISNA before it was taken down. It can now only be seen on foreign-based Persian-language sites.


News sites

Some of the sites blocked inside Iran

* The DAI (Digital Access Index) has been devised by the International Telecommunications Union to measure the access of a country's inhabitants to information and communication technology. It ranges from 0 (none at all) to 1 (complete access).

** Assessment of the situation in each country (good, middling, difficult, serious) is based on murders, imprisonment or harassment of cyber-dissidents or journalists, censorship of news sites, existence of independent news sites, existence of independent ISPs and deliberately high connection charges.


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