New Media and The Middle East – Challenging Authority in IranSeptember 30, 2009
This is another installment in my series of posts on examples of ways new media are being used to challenge authority in the Middle East. This post will focus on Iran.
Internet access in Iran has seen a particular explosion, growing faster than any other Middle Eastern country, according to Reporters Without Borders. “From 2000 to 2007,” reported Sepideh Parsa, “the number of users grew from 250,000 to 18 million, which accounts for 53.7% of users in the region”.
Within this explosion has been the rise of blogging in Iran, with the blogosphere becoming such a phenomenon as to warrant its current nickname, “Weblogistan”. This rise in blogging is having political ramifications for the Iranian State. “Blogs have become an essential medium for dissidence against the autocratic regime and its state-controlled media”, said Parsa. “Iran has one of the strictest censorship policies in the Middle East. Thus, blogs offer Iranians the only platform to peacefully exchange their political thought, emotions, and opinions while overcoming the boundaries that have been imposed by the government”.
However, the Iranian government is not letting this trend go unabated. Iran has put in place “one of the most extensive and sophisticated operations to censor and filter Internet content of any country in the world—second only to China”, according to Curt Hopkins, director of Committee to Protect Bloggers. Freedom House reported in its “Freedom on the Net: A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media” report that Iran’s general techniques include automated filtering, manually produced blacklists, and active posting of pro-government information. According to the report:
The government is especially sensitive to Internet organizing by student activists, women’s rights groups, and ethnic and religious minorities. It blocks, arrests, and otherwise threatens content producers who post news about the statements and organizing activities of these highly mobilized but repressed groups. Sites concerning gays and lesbians are routinely censored, though the Iranian homosexual community has gained an unprecedented voice via the Internet (these sites are mostly based abroad), and has publicized the execution of homosexuals. Sites are also hacked and disabled when they become popular or feature politically provocative content.
Committee to Protect Journalists pointed out in a piece called “10 Worst Countries to Be a Blogger” that the state has blocked millions of Web sites, regularly detains and harasses bloggers, and even has pending legislation that could make promoting “corruption, prostitution, and apostasy” punishable by death. Online oppression in Iran is so bad that Committee to Protect Journalists has named it the second worst country in the world to be a blogger, behind only Burma.
Since 2006, Iran has undertaken significant actions that have greatly expanded its ability to control and oppress expression through the Internet. That year, according to Reporters Without Borders, authorities banned broadband, making it very difficult to download music and videos that could challenge the government. Open Net Initiative’s country profile on Iran stated that in November 2006, the government established regulations requiring owners of blogs and websites to register, and abstain from content deemed illegal. It also set up an “Internet surveillance body” under the umbrella of the Ministry for Culture and Islamic Orientation to monitor “false news”.
Access providers are now required, according to Reporters Without Borders, to ensure that banned content “insulting Islam or monotheist religions, those which disseminate separatist ideologies, those publishing false news or damaging private life” are not published by their servers. In fact, access providers been made criminally liable for it under the Cyber Crimes Bill, Open Net Initiative has reported.
Websites like Flickr and YouTube have been blocked, making it more difficult for Iranians to share photos and videos (as in the Egyptian case).
“The Iranian government had more than ten bloggers arrested in 2007,” according to Reporters Without Borders, “chiefly women demanding their rights through feminist publications such as Tagir Bary Barbary (Change for Equality) and Zanestan (The City of Women),” which is significant in part because women’s magazines have made their way to the Internet, being hard to find on newsstands. All of this is taking place in a country that Freedom House has deemed “Not Free” in each of its 2008 reports “Freedom on the Net”, “Freedom of the Press”, and “Freedom in the World”.
And with all that surrounded the 2009 election in Iran, new media were utilized in a way that ensured the whole world was watching. Blogs, YouTube, Flickr, and Twitter all provided a mechanism for getting information in and out of the country, as Mashable provided a nice snapshot of. On Twitter, the hashtag #iranelection—which quickly joined the trending topics on Twitter as protests erupted during the election—is still going strong in the Twittersphere.
That Iran is going to such great lengths to attempt to control new media and how people express themselves reflects just how much of a threat these tools are to their authority. New media don’t simply represent the threat of political dissent, but also the infiltration of western influence and culture in the eyes of Iran. As Iranians download music and videos, and correspond with people from other countries, the New Media that facilitate this necessarily make this an international issue. Blogging, in particular, carries an association in Iran with civil society and the West, contend Elizabeth Bucar and Roja Fazaeli in their article “Free Speech in Weblogistan? The Offline Consequences of Online Communication“.
The reality is that the Internet was designed in a way to make completely censoring it virtually impossible. Users in Iran, according to Freedom House, are able to circumvent filters by using proxies and make use of temporary openings in subversive, innovative ways. For instance, an Iranian named Hamed Saber developed an extension that turns Firefox into a proxy that bypasses censorship on popular Web 2.0 websites such as YouTube, del.icio.us, Flickr, Technorati.com, Friendster.com, livejournal.com, MySpace, Hi5 and others, many of which are barred in Iran (Sami Ben Charbia, Global Voices). Moreover, as long as it is relatively easy to create a website, and as long as people in Iran, and outside its borders, can save a copy to their hard drives, that information can always be republished and accessed in some form.
Unless Iran is willing to shut down the Internet altogether, it will never be able to stop the Internet from being a tool for dissent and access to foreign cultures. Therefore, as long as dissent and foreign cultures are seen as a threat to the states of authoritarian regimes like Iran, the Internet will be a threat to them, as well.
Photo 1: Courtesy of Bloggers Unite for a Free Iran.