Guest article

Islamic Republic of Iran: A New Generation of Digital Media Under Threat

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Heather Blake

26 Nov 2012

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I was escorted down a long corridor to the hotel room.  The guy knocked on the door and another man opened it to greet me with a very friendly: “Hello.  How are you?  Come in.”  The man who opened the door chatted away to me quite friendly; I kept thinking that he couldn’t possibly be the interrogator; he couldn’t possibly be from the government.  He’s dressed beautifully, he smells nice, he looks nice.  It was a beautiful hotel room with the most gorgeous view of Tehran.  He had a huge breakfast spread waiting for me with all my favourite food; I was even served coffee because he knew that I preferred it to tea; he knew everything about me.  He turned on the television, it played quite loudly in the background while he kindly insisted that I was hungry and that I should eat; but I was too scared to eat.  I only had a sip of water.  He didn’t like that, so he suddenly switched from being nice to negative.  The breakfast was taken away.   The interrogation began.  He asked me the same questions hour after hour, and by the end of it, and my refusal to sign any papers, he shook my hand and said “forgive me.”        

After the 2009 elections everything changed for Iranian journalists.  Many journalists who had put their lives on the lines to report on the events unfolding in the country, were harassed, or their family members were harassed, or told lies, along with detailed information hacked into by Iranian authorities and then used as a scare tactic towards the journalists and their family members.

The international community has seen an increase in the number of attacks on journalists rise significantly since the Iraq war.   Much of the focus has been on attacks of media personnel in conflict afflicted countries; with such attacks on journalists witnessed recently, and most starkly, during the Arab Spring uprisings.  Attacks on journalists are not exclusive, however, to just conflict areas.  The press in some non conflict afflicted countries is under even greater threat with censorship, draconian legislation, surveillance, arbitrary detainment and, in many cases, physical and psychological maltreatment while in prison.

Such a growing threat is not just exclusive to the traditional media; social media users, such as bloggers and netizens, are under increasing threat and are a growing number of digital media personnel being targeted.  The country with the highest number of journalists in prison, to date, is Iran with four netizens, for the first time ever, who have been convicted to the death penalty for online activism and can be executed at anytime.

Reporters Without Borders 2011 Press Freedom Index ranked Iran 175th out of 179 countries.  According to the UN Special Rapporteur for Iran, Iran has among the highest number of journalists in prison, to date, than any other country.  In 2012, RSF research has found that 24 journalists, 1 media assistant and 18 netizens are imprisoned.  The Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) research has found Iran to be the world’s most censored country with three journalists killed since 1992 and 42 imprisoned in December 2011.  Both NGOs independent research show that the facts speak for themselves and can be further supported by the UN Special Rapporteur’s March 2010; September 2011 and March 2012 reports which highlight extensive human rights violations being committed towards human rights defenders. Journalists being among the many groups that are harassed, intimidated, detained arbitrarily and then tortured physically and psychologically.  The UN Special Rapporteur’s 6 of March 2012 report found that since the presidential elections in 2009, 150 journalists have fled the country, 500 publications have been suspended and most press trials are conducted in private and with the journalists not being present at the trial. 

The rise of violations against the press, the threat of a national internet and the inclusion of netizens and bloggers, among traditional media personnel, being targeted displays how powerful and threatening the global force of freedom of information is to the Iranian authorities.  The Iranian government, however, has been quick to point out cosmetic changes to its penal code, but an acute rise in intimidation tactics and arrests on bloggers, netizens and traditional journalists contradict any lip service of change made to the international community.  The implementing of draconian laws and using intimidation to control the free flow of open source digital platforms indicates a new and tactical approach to silence Iranians from speaking out globally on the violations and corruption taking place in the country. 

Clamp downs on the internet is an obvious target since its outreach is global and in real time; press freedom violations in any country is a warning sign that other human rights violations are taking place and/or on the rise.  RSF research has found that, some tactics being used to close down social media platforms are, the redirection of independent or opposition websites to government sites, the cutting off  of internet access and the slowing down of bandwidth which disrupts the free flow of information and usage of the internet. 

Press violations are not exclusive to local digital and traditional journalists and media organisations.  The BBC World Service has encountered intermittent satellite jamming of BBC Persian as well as staff members, and their families, being harassed and threatened by Iranian authorities.  In 2012, the Reuters bureau in Tehran was suspended after being accused of publishing anti-government propaganda.  As witnessed starkly with the uprisings throughout the Middle East and North Africa, social media can be used as a tool to assist in the mobilising and global publication of strong opposing beliefs and ideas, and the organising of mass demonstrations to voice public disdain and outcry for change.

RSF’s 2012 Internet Enemies report revealed that, between 1 March 2011 – 1 March 2012;  29 netizens were arrested.  The Centre for the Surveillance of Organised Crime, created by the Revolutionary Guards in 2008, has been instrumental in the arrests and convictions of the netizens.  The Centre for the Surveillance of Organised Crime is the digital watchdog of the government which uses sophisticated surveillance to closely monitor all internet activity which then is used to target netizens seen as a threat to the government.  Unpredictable actions by the Iranian authorities, such as high numbers of arrests right before elections and certain anniversary dates, are used to scaremonger journalists and create a climate of fear and intimidation.  Journalists never know if upon, before or after publication of an article if they will be arrested and then physically and psychologically maltreated leading to false confessions. 

The Iranian regime has accused international NGOs and many governments of exaggerating and falsely presenting the human rights situation in Iran.  When interviewing Iranians, a general consensus which supports reports on the high number of journalists and human rights defenders leaving the country is that, most Iranians regardless of age, gender and profession, have a great desire to leave the country due to the high level of corruption, intimidation, arrests and torture. 

Further reports from within the country state that the regime is claiming that the internet is the West’s soft war to cause collapse to the Iranian family, and the Centre for the Surveillance of Organised Crime is using the excuse that such monitoring of the population is needed to combat terrorism and organised crime.  A twenty point list of strict regulations to be followed when running a Cybercafé has been enforced and published widely.  The regulations are in place to monitor all internet activity; some examples of the mandatory regulations required are as follows:

  • the internet café is required to obtain their necessary bandwidth by mandate from a licensed ISP and all unauthorised providers are strictly forbidden.  
  • the management of the Internet services outlet is required to present necessary documents about supplying bandwidth and observance of general condition to the police upon demand. 
  •  providing any type of remote services through internet cafes is prohibited. 
  •  internet café licence holders must employ individuals who have the qualifications of committed and experienced, good reputation, without prior criminal and judicial records, married and 25 years of age or older. 
  • installation of closed circuit television cameras with the capacity to record continuously, keep the images, and be available for six months is mandatory 
  • internet café managers must prevent the use of a computer station by more than one person, except for novices intending to use public services and are being helped by a family member or acquaintance. 

A strong and free digital and traditional press plays a role of public advocacy.  By silencing such a right, public awareness and opinion is denied and the violations of other rights can follow suit with no accountability.  A strong and free press guarantees public recourse that should, ultimately, lead to justice regardless of economic status, gender and beliefs. 

Iran’s threat of nuclear weapons has taken the forefront of international concern.  What needs to be addressed just as aggressively, if not more, are the many human rights abuses taking place in the country, and the responsibility of the international community to continually place unfaltering attention to such violations.  What country and government employees want to be accused of, and have to justify, violating human dignity so ruthlessly that the majority of its population wishes to leave the country?  What country wants to be forced to explain accusations of persecuting and silencing its press, with examples of intimidation, detainment and torture to enforce draconian regulations?  These are questions that need to be asked not just at an official international level, but asked by Iranian to Iranian and addressed to Iranians.

Such cases as, the blogger Sattar Behesti imprisoned for online human rights activism dieing under torture, and imprisoned political activist and Sakharov winner Nasrin Sotoudeh being held in solitary confinement, and the imprisoned lawyer and founding member of the Centre for Human Rights Defenders, Mohamed Ali Dadkhah,  and the blocking of international organisations such as Google, and the satellite jamming of BBC Persian and threats made towards the bureau’s staff, are only a few internationally known cases among many in Iran who remain voiceless and unheard of.  Such disregard of human dignity hits home with all of us, and internationally shames any government that systematically partakes in human rights violations. 

The UN Special Rapporteur stated recently that, “freedom of information and press is a human right which allows for the gaining of knowledge which allows for the right to choose which, ultimately, guarantees the right to life.”  Human rights are universal and binding to all states under international humanitarian law and international human rights law.  The people of the Islamic Republic of Iran are entitled to have their human rights and fundamental freedoms respected.   

 

Writer's Profile

Heather Blake is the UK Director for Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières).  Heather has been the rapporteur for human rights foreign policy reports on Responsibility to Protect, the UN Human Rights Council Review and recently completed a third report on the occupied Palestinian Territories.  Heather has given many interviews to the international and UK media on press freedom and human rights, and is invited to speak regularly on human rights and press freedom issues.

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