Published on openDemocracy, by Babak Rahimi, June 1, 2009.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has been and remains one of the world’s harshest censors of the Internet, frequently blocking sites that are deemed “immoral” and politically offensive to the unelected authorities in power. Dissident bloggers and journalists of diverse ethnic, political and religious backgrounds are imprisoned and at times even executed for expressing their views online. Websites like “Virgin Atlantic” and “the American Anthropological Association” are blocked for merely containing words or phrases that are perceived anti-Islamic by the ruling elites in Tehran. In many ways, the Internet is viewed by the ruling clerics as potentially a dangerous domain, which requires harsh measures to control its content. There are paradoxes in this issue like other aspects of politics in Iran; the government censoring of the Internet does not follow a systematic pattern and the more famous the blogger the harder it is for the authorities to harass her/him. The recent death of Mirsayafi in the Evin prison – a less known blogger with an obscure blog who insulted the supreme leader – demonstrates these paradoxes well.
In February 2009, however, Iranian authorities took an unusual step of unblocking the popular social networking website of Facebook. Surprisingly, the move coincided with the authorities’ relentless push to block a number of dissident websites ahead of the presidential elections, scheduled in June this year. By mid-April, Internet censorship saw even harsher measures when the parliament passed a bill that ratified greater control of the Net, including a clause that required presidential candidates to register their blogs and websites with the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for campaigning online. Social networking sites are becoming increasingly popular. Mir Hossein Mousavi, a reformist presidential candidate, is on the twitter. Amid an increasing regime of censorships, many Iranians, particularly younger people, are swiftly launching personal and collective forums to interact on the popular website. Facebook is now the most famous social networking site in Iran.
So why unblock Facebook and, at the same time, limit access to other sites online? …
… Though such outspoken Facebook discussions would not likely have any long-term effect on Iranian politics, they have created instances of defiance against an authoritarian regime that has denied its citizens basic civil rights—particularly the freedom of expression. In light of such a threat, on May 23, access to Facebook was once more blocked. Surprisingly, the move followed yet again another move to unblock the site on May 26, just three days after it was filtered. According to reformist newspapers, the regime was finally forced to unblock the website because of Iranian users “vehemently protesting” the regime’s censorship policy ahead of the elections. Though the main reason behind unblocking the website remains unknown, it is highly likely that the state has recognized that once some social freedoms are granted, it would be difficult to deny them to a public with a more profound understanding of itself in a less restricted medium of interaction-especially in virtual space. The potential threat of a strategy of selective political openings, therefore, is that Islamic Republic would have to ultimately deal with an offline community of Facebook activists demanding a more open society regardless of an expanding state control over the Iranian public sphere. (full text).