Finding a Safe Space in Iran

Finding a Safe Space in Iran - Digital

Technicians monitor data flow in the control room of an internet service provider in Tehran February 15, 2011. . REUTERS/Caren Firouz

The unease of having your parents, aunts, uncles and cousins on Facebook has been a topic of comic discussion for a while. It’s an uncomfortable situation, especially as an Iranian, where many choose to self-censor so as not to offend their family’s sensibilities. Stranger still is when you avoid certain content out of fear that you may cause trouble for your relative/s in Iran. Sometimes you might even choose to avoid uploading some content due to the issues it may cause for those looking to travel back to Iran.

Fear of the authorities has created an Iranian nation within which most netizens live double lives; a nation where a pseudonym for your cyber-self is part of the accepted norm. Current internet culture has long encouraged the use of “handles” or “user names”: in Iran this is an essential step to avoid the heavy retaliation of the state. This adoption of a public and private self in repressive regimes has been the study of a number of social psychological reports which highlight the harm caused to collective morale – creating a deep-rooted and widespread paranoia.

Where is our ‘safe space’?

I think back to a phone conversation with my uncle in Iran on the eve of the June 2009 elections, where I asked him who he was thinking of voting for. His silence shook me. My uncle is not a political man and has never openly discussed his opinions of the current regime; in fact he seemed quite content living under mass surveillance – he thought he had nothing to hide. So for a man who is largely oblivious to the lack of free speech and privacy in Iran to react with what seemed to be pure fear at this simple question was astonishing for me. His only response was “the telephone is not a place to discuss such things”. Our conversation ended there. And the notorious post-election arrests started.

But where can one discuss such things? There’s now general consensus among Iranian activists that the telephone is a no-go area for debating sensitive issues, and the general public feel the same. To them everything is monitored. That leaves only the Internet – an unchallenged forum for open debate, right? Well, not so much.

4 million Iranians access social media sites – such as Facebook – using proxies. Although many Iranians have circumvented the filters of Iran’s patchy internet networks, they are still unable to realise its full potential due to two main reasons:

1)    Fear of being monitored.

2)    Internet speed throttling.

Both are techniques used by authorities to inhibit communication and alternative voices in the virtual environment. In 2013, an independent study highlighted that Iranian authority deliberately lowers internet speed in order to “frustrate users and limit communication”. This was seen during the 2009 election protests, and in the weeks leading up to the 2013 election. Yet this is an everyday issue for Iranians.

Recent events, including Facebook crackdowns, have intensified fears of using social media. The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI) reports that the IRGC cyberspace specialist, Mostafa Alizadeh, made a statement earlier this week of the arrest of 12 Facebook users on charges of “spreading corruption, and [carrying out a] mission to change family lifestyles.” 24 others have been summoned for questioning as a result of their Facebook activity. These arrests are part of an intensified surveillance of Facebook pages under “Operation Spider”, with a mission to identify and root out pages that spread “corruption”. People’s fear of using these platforms was reconfirmed when Alizadeh threatened that all social networks would be monitored, “those who think this space is safe for them, must cease their activities.” The adoption of a second online self is therefore a necessary survival technique that the regime perpetuates.

Internet outside Major Cities

Internet access is even worse in rural areas where there is a digital gap. There is often either limited or no access. This internet issue creates an even bigger problem for human rights defenders trying to maintain contact with their sources in rural Iran. The fear of being caught, as well as the lack of internet access, is a mix that severely hampers any efforts to contact the international community in order to highlight minority issues – leaving silence for the many who need a unified international voice to protect them.

The latest Human Rights Watch report also highlights the continued violation of rights for Kurds, Baluchis and Arabs in Iran, something that is rarely reported on. For example, in December alone, 11 Kurds were hanged in Iran, the reasons for which are still unclear. Thus it is vital for these communities to have access to at least a virtual platform to advocate for their rights and disseminate information.

The disconcerting increase of arrests due to Facebook activities is testament to the Iranian authorities’ antagonism towards their international human rights obligations. The use of Facebook and social media is not a crime. Once again, we urge President Rouhani to take action and put pressure on the Revolutionary Guard to release the Facebook users. A safe space to freely express oneself is vital to any individual, let alone to a country in dire need of access to the global flow of information.

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