Guest article

Access to the Internet and Islamic Republic’s Paranoia

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Tahirih Danesh

14 Mar 2013


This content is available in: , Farsi


Access to internet and Islamic Republic’s Paranoia


On 15 February 2013 Madame Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, delivered an important address in London, United Kingdom entitled “Freedom of expression and incitement to hatred in the context of international human rights law”. Among a number of significant points, she spoke of the intricate relationship between two articles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Articles 19 and 20. The former guarantees the right to freedom of expression and the latter demands the commitment of states to prohibit the promulgation of any effort tantamount to “incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.” [1]

While Article 19 enunciates a basic human right, Article 20 qualifies that same right so as to ensure one’s inviolable right to expression does not violate the inherent dignity of others. The nexus of the two revolves around information and the role it plays in protecting both its provider and its consumer. In today’s world, whether in open or controlled societies, the primary source of information is the internet. According to the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, “there is no freedom of information without internet freedom.” [2]

The Islamic Republic of Iran is well aware of this fact. While just one out of every five Iranian has access to the internet, the globe is living through days of Twitter revolutions and Facebook campaigns. With violent repression and systematic infiltration of every arm of the state by the Islamic Republic Guards Corps (IRGC) the Islamic Republic authorities have managed to maximize control of information exchange in every arena. Having reportedly allocated a budget of US$ 500 million and instituted the Supreme Council on Cyberspace, they hope to do the same with the internet.

To fully grasp the Islamic Republic’s paranoia about access to information via the internet, it may be beneficial to look back at 1980 and the process that resulted in the culmination of the nascent Republic: the Islamic cultural revolution. Starting with the media and the educational system, the new Republic took every step to change the form, language and content of information available to young and old. The likes of Mohammad Javad Bahonar and Mohammad Ali Rajaie implemented the publication and production of either false or limited versions of information as a means to redefine historical and social realities. Furthermore, they ‘cleansed’ government institutions from unwanted elements and expelled thousands of Iranian professors, teachers, employees and students. By doing so, they hoped to promote a new kind of education for the nation. In the words of Professor Mohammad Tavakol-Targhi, the new Republic ‘culturally engineered’ the inculcation of an Islamic identity in Iranian citizens, organizations and communities.

However, some Iranians took to other sources of information such as foreign radios, older editions of books and oral history passed on from generation to generation, in prose and poetry. Gradually, more Iranians took charge of their own path to access information and defined the parameters of their education. Some moved overseas while others engaged in private tuition. Some went further and formed almost 300 private universities throughout the country. It was in this context that Iranian youth flourished and Iranian cinema; music, visual arts and journalism entered a new paradigm.

With the rise of the internet, Iran became the first Muslim country in the Middle East to go on-line and soon Iranians found new ways of exchanging information and patterns of such exchanges pointed to a reality different from one the Republic authorities had hoped to engineer: a young and dynamic Iran interested in the West and yearning for modernism. In response, the authorities swiftly established categories of unacceptable sites and took whatever steps possible to curb access to what it considered to be harmful information.

While the Islamic Republic widened the gap between its state and the international community, the people, Iranian and otherwise, established a common space on the internet free of any gaps. The state redoubled its efforts and inaugurated a process of training a cyber army able to hack any unwanted site while filling up cyberspace with sites promoting nothing but the state-approved propaganda inciting ‘discrimination, hostility or violence’ towards Iranian minorities, women’s advancement, Western powers and modern culture. Iranians did not give up. Sites, chat rooms, blogs were soon followed by tweets and Facebook pages. Iranians formed one of the largest populations occupying the blogosphere and some claim Iranian patterns of citizen journalism helped inspire the Arab Spring.

These, and similar developments, point the fact that the Islamic Republic of Iran is not only intent to launch its halal internet planned to exclude unwanted sites and sources of information but also to fill up cyberspace with its own brand of information as a means of educating its citizens and others. Therefore, the internet represents the real grounds for the latest phase of Islamic Republic’s cultural revolution.

Over the past decade, this new phase has also presented an unprecedented opportunity for those genuinely interested in supporting dynamics of development and democracy in Iran. Scores of individuals and institutions among the diaspora have inaugurated excellent initiatives to keep their Iranian brothers and sisters informed of the latest and the most relevant information available in the West. In addition to formal reports on gross human rights violations in Iran, lessons on human rights, democracy, gender equality, ethnic identity, internet security, citizen journalism, religious teachings and arts and entertainment are shared in whatever way possible to keep Iranians in the loop. In the absence of commitment on the part of the state to the existing norms and standards to protect the right to expression without inciting “discrimination, hostility or violence,” Iranian citizens and the diaspora have done well to keep each other informed and educated.

However, we are now entering a new phase of unprecedented opportunities. As the Islamic Republic tightens the noose on education by re-enforcing quotas and discriminatory admission laws based on gender, ideology and religion, the internet offers new possibilities to once again help young Iranians flourish in ways previously unimaginable.

One approach is through formal education. More and more world-class universities are entering the arena of on-line education. John Hopkins, Harvard, Yale, Stanford are but a few who have finally joined the ranks of Indiana and UNISA in offering education through the internet. Coursera[3] is another new effort that links the east and the west to access some of the best professors at some of the top universities on the planet. While Iran’s largest non-Muslim minority have been busy since the mid 1980’s with their grassroots university, the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education[4], more organizations, such as Tavaana[5], Radio Zamaneh[6], and Iran Academia[7] are offering hybrid and on-line education to youth and the young-at-heart in Iran. These all provide new avenues to merge the internet and education and offer a powerful resource for the betterment of Iranian society.

But there is room for more. Increasing numbers of Iranian women and girls need assistance to access information, think critically and express their views and learnings in ways conducive to the advancement of their selves and society. Young Arabs, Lors, Kurds and Azeris need access to materials in their native tongues. Iranian Jews, Zoroastrians, Christians and Bahá’ís need sites where their history in Iran is preserved and passed on to the coming generations. As the Iranian diaspora prospers and progresses, ways and means of embarking on such ventures can be explored in the coming weeks and months.

A second approach is through edutainment. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines edutainment as “entertainment that is designed to be educational.”[8] While scores of radio and television programs, YouTube clips and mixes of news and entertainment links on Facebook pour in old Iranian productions or copy cats of Western miniseries and reality shows through the internet, few have considered the needs of Iranians of today with a vision that there will be a tomorrow, and that we can no longer afford to live with the extremes of social laxity or revolutionary fanaticism.

Experiences in post-conflict zones and even the most impoverished countries in Africa and Asia show that edutainment can transform perspectives and patterns of action. Whether it is a simple game to construct and preserve a diversiform nature park on the internet[9] or a primetime Bollywood miniseries weaving love stories with health and social development[10], edutainment is changing the world of grassroots mobilization and expediting positive social change through agency of the citizen.

Both approaches demonstrate valid means of responding to possibilities and challenges in Iran of today. They rest on the notion of empowering Iranians to remember their rights and to learn to collaborate. But it is not enough to raise awareness. The time has come to raise the level of knowledge as applied to the needs of Iranians of this generation and learn from similar struggles around the globe in order to provide a vision for the new generation.

While the 2009 post-election uprisings were misnamed Iran’s Twitter revolution, every Iranian and Iranian activist knows it was Facebook that acted as a catalyst in the formation of the uprising, despite severe repression of the masses. The reason may be that Facebook offers a preliminary form of edutainment to Iranians. In the words of an activist in Iran: “it is both business and pleasure, it has a bit of news, a bit of politics, a bit of family, a bit of finance, all in one. So you surf the pages in search of fun and in the process learn quite a bit. This works with the escapist approach of the young generation in Iran who are repressed on all sides and take to the internet to escape their daily lives.”[11]

If over the past three decades Iranian grassroots have directed the course of their access to information and education, then what they are given access to will define how they will shape their future. The Islamic Republic policies of ‘cleansing’ and ‘cultural engineering’ are violate Articles 19 and 20 of the ICCPR and are designed to keep the entire nation hostages to their vision of Iran and the world.  If in the coming months and years those interested in preserving the Iranians’ right to expression free of any form of discrimination, hostility or violence plan to assist those on the ground, it will be through a concerted effort to employ innovative approaches to use the internet to enhance a culture open to discourse and development among Iranian citizens, organizations and communities. We must do all we can to keep Iranians’ access to real information on the internet free and accessible because after all, “there is no freedom of information without internet freedom.” [12]


Tahirih Danesh is a Human Rights Researcher and Documenter.She is currently an Honoray Researcher at Roehampton University in London. She has contributed to a number of significant reports and publications on human rights in Iran, and is the Founder and Chief Editor of UK Foreign Policy Centre's Iran Human Rights Review

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[11] Interview with a student activist in Iran on 10 February 2013. The identity of the activist is not disclosed for security reasons.


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