It seems that recently not a week goes by without developments on the suppression of free expression in Iran. This week we have been witness to both comical and deeply concerning news from Iran – a juxtaposition that has been prevalent Iranian politics for many years.
Earlier in the week reports suggested that a judge in southern Iran had ordered Mark Zuckerberg to appear in court to answer complaints by individuals who say Facebook-owned applications, Instagram and Whatsapp, violate their privacy (NB: there is no extradition treaty between the US and Iran). This caused numerous comic reactions by netizens around the world and even inspired #FreeZuckerberg — creating some damaging PR for Iran. A top official in the southern Iranian city of Shiraz was quick to deny these reports on Wednesday. It seems that the story of Zuckerberg’s summons originated with the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), according to Al Monitor.
Away from the media attention for Zuckerburg summons, the Iranian judiciary had their hands full dealing with the Facebook issue in a different way. Reports emerged that eight Facebook users had been jailed on charges including blasphemy and insulting the country’s supreme leader on Facebook. According to the opposition new website, Kaleme, Roya Saberinejad Nobakht, and Amir Golestani, each received 20 years in prison and the remaining six – Masoud Ghasemkhani, Fariborz Kardarfar, Seyed Masoud Seyed Talebi, Amin Akramipour, Mehdi Reyshahri and Naghmeh Shahisavandi Shirazi – between seven and 19 years. This is again another huge blow for internet freedom in Iran which has been as the centre of tensions between President Rouhani’s net savvy reformist administration and hardliners.
It was only last week, before the arrest of the Happy dancers that created scandal throughout international media, that Rouhani gave a speech maintaining that “(t)he era of the one-sided pulpit is over”. He called for Iran to abandon its paranoid digital censorship and embrace the internet. He also endorsed social networks, asking his communications minister to improve bandwidth in the country. Nonetheless, his battle with the judiciary on internet censorship still continues.
Another issue highlighting the tensions surrounding internet freedom is the fate of Sassan Soleimani. Soleimani, the director of the Happy video, has been linked to Rouhani’s presidential campaign, which critics argue could have elevated the tensions with hardliners leading to him to remain in detention. He remains in Rajaee-Shahr Prison in Karaj “where he is being deprived of sleep, days after six people who appeared in the video were released from detention”. Limited information has been given about Soleimani’s condition and his sentence.
More and more we are witnessing the whirlpool of internal disputes over Iran’s international and media policies sucking in numerous netizens, journalists, activists and academics in its destructive path. On the 28th May, reports also detailed the arrest of prominent journalist Saba Azarpeik who was involved with a number of reformist publications in Tehran, including Etemaad daily. No information has been given about whether she has been provided with her minimum rights or where she is held. Azarpeik used net-based platforms to voice her criticism of the State’s treatment of journalists and opposition figures. Most notably, she covered the case of the Iranian blogger, Sattar Beheshti, whose death in custody created great controversy for the authorities. Azarpeik has been particularly under pressure for her comments and reports on her Facebook page, enforcing Iranians surveillance methods of using social media content to charge Iranians in court. As Omri Ceren notes, “this was just weeks after a new report published on World Press Freedom Day established Iran as the global leader in incarcerating members of the press.” In her article she highlights how Iranian authorities use the atrocious conditions in Iranian prisons as a tool to threaten and intimidate journalists.
As noted by Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, the convictions and punishments reflected “a serious challenge to Rouhani and his stated policy of opening up the Internet.” The crippling clasp on the cyber world in Iran intensified two years ago. Before then, Iran’s Ministry of Information and Communications Technology was in charge of policing the country’s online community; this changed in 2012 when Ayatollah Khamenei ordered officials to set up the Supreme Council of Virtual Space, a body closely linked to the supreme leader. This Council has again been used to supress the freedom of expression in Iran, limiting reformist influence on Iranian web policies.
This worrying trend of surveying social media, especially Facebook, to target and prosecute people for simply exercising their right to expression must be stopped. Iran has become a country where a simple Facebook post is threatening enough to become a crime. We urge the Iranian Judiciary and security apparatus to ease the restraint on cyber freedoms allowing the people of Iran to enjoy their right to expression. ‘Facebooking’ should not be a crime.