XPA 2017 country profile: Iran

Civic Space 8 min read
ARTICLE 19

Population:     

80 million approx.

System of Government:

An elected government overseen by an unelected theocratic institution.

Legislative structure: 

The legislature of Iran is divided into two major structures: The Islamic Consultative Assembly (aka Majlis or parliament) which is made up of 290 representatives elected directly by the people; and the Guardian Council which overlooks parliament by reviewing legislation and its compatibility with Islam and the Constitution. Six of the twelve members of the Guardian Council are Islamic jurists who are appointed by the Supreme Leader and the other six are also Islamic jurists who are elected by parliament from jurists nominated by the Chief Justice of Iran.

Freedom of expression: key legislation and instruments

The Press Law (1986) and its amendments (2000) do not comply with the international human rights standards to which Iran is party.

The Publication and Free Access to Information Act was finally adopted in 2014, after a five-year wait.

In 2015, the Cabinet regulated how information can be requested, outlining the formation of the Freedom of Information Commission.

The Iran Computer Crimes Law was approved by parliament in 2009 and has been instrumental in persecuting and repressing cyber-activists and bloggers.

The Islamic Penal Code was approved by parliament in 1991 and ratified by the Guardian Council later that year. Comprised of five chapters, Chapter Five is the only part of the Penal Code that has been adopted permanently and, unlike the rest of the Penal Code, is not subject to experimental periods. Passed in 1996, Chapter Five deals with ta’zir crimes (punishments for offenses at the discretion of a judge or the ruler of the State), deterrent punishments, crimes against national security, crimes against property, and crimes against people. Many provisions prohibit forms of expression, allowing the State to classify them as a ‘threat to national security’.

Major political developments 2016/17

Between 2005-13, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had a massive impact on the political landscape of the country, the effects of which are still present to date. While current President Rouhani’s first term in office from 2013 was a stark contrast to Ahmadinejad’s tenure at least in stylistic terms, Rouhani’s rhetoric has been overshadowed by his second term which has seen reinvigorated and extensive free speech restrictions and regressive decisions, including the imprisonment of a high number of journalists and dual nationals, tighter internet controls, a newly appointed Minister for ICT with a divisive background, and lack of women in the Cabinet.

Key freedom of expression issues

Internet censorship, privacy and state surveillance

While the government tries to take advantage of the opportunities the Internet provides to the economy and local industry, it continues policies of suppression and control online.

Various government efforts define Iran’s Internet policies of control, namely the efforts to nationalize Internet infrastructure with the National Information Network (NIN). The new Minister of ICT, Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahrommi, previously involved in the country’s Ministry of intelligence and in the arrests of protesters in 2009, has made announcements about his intentions to open platforms such as Twitter from censorship. However, he has indicated this would only happen with cooperation from the companies.

Other uncensored platforms such as Telegram and Instagram are under increasing pressure to cooperate, to move their server and data infrastructure inside the country, and disable encryption protocols that prevent the government from monitoring the content of Iranian users.

Some of the incentives they are giving ISPs to promote users to use local applications and platforms over foreign ones are also in direct contradiction to international standards of net neutrality. Local applications such as Snapp have demonstrated that they collect and share the data of users to comply with the government’s local laws.

Additional concerns lie in the crackdowns on Telegram public channels. Telegrams administrators and their public channels are under government monitoring, forced to register with the government if their channels contain more than 5000 followers.

Since March 2017 arrests of channel administrators have continued under the guise of ‘threats to national security.’ Iran’s hardline judiciary and the Revolutionary Guards are known to be at the helm of these arrests, often condemned by members of the Rouhani administration. These hardline elements are blamed for the continued tightening of the net in Iran. The continued censorship of thousands of websites and platforms contradict the promises of a more Internet by Rouhani and his administration.

Restrictions on participation in civic space

The pressure on unions is high and their voices stifled harshly. Labour activists, who happen to be the most vocal ones, are constantly threatened and arrested. Likewise, other civil society activists have the same fate. Unsurprisingly, journalists are not immune with at least 12 journalists and 14 bloggers and social media users incarcerated.

Threat of arrest

Another on-going trend is the pressure on Iranians in diaspora. Imprisonment of dual nationals traveling back to Iran has never been higher (Nazanin Zaghari-Rathcliffe leading the list) and most diaspora Iranian media workers (BBC, Manoto, VOA etc.) have their families in Iran under pressure and all their assets confiscated.

Discrimination against minorities

The Baha’i’s do not have access to education, among other discriminations and pressure, and other religious and ethnic minorities are not immune as well. Farsi needs to be the first language of all these minorities and they normally cannot hold senior position in public offices.

Prospects for change

Possibly the only positive outlook for the country is the adoption of the Freedom of Information Law and by-laws that will hopefully ensure its implementation. The setting up for a portal to make FOI requests in the recent months is another reason to invest in this area as a prospect for change.

There is some positive prospects in the fact that the Rouhani administration’s rhetoric indicates opposition to things such as crackdowns on Telegram administrators and support the opening of platforms such as Twitter, however they need to be more assertive and align themselves to international standards of freedom of expression.