In Iran, policing of Internet will continue

by Kimia Sanati, Inter Press Service

Iranian officials have scorned the labelling of this country by a journalists' rights watchdog as one of the world's 13 Internet 'black holes' and said they will continue to protect what they claim are the morals of society.

In a report released earlier this month, the Paris-based Reporters Without Frontiers had named Iran, along with countries like China, Belarus, Saudi Arabia and North Korea, as 'enemies' of the Internet for restricting access to it and jailing cyber journalists and bloggers.

Reacting, the secretary to Iran's Informatics High Council said that this country defines its values differently from those in the West. "If freedom of speech is against cultural values, it must be prevented. All countries in the world use filtering because freedom (of speech) shouldn't turn into (freedom of) prostitution," he was quoted as saying by the Iranian Labour News Agency.

More than one-tenth of Iran's 70 million people use the Internet and the figure is increasing very rapidly. Cyber cafes have for several years been popular hangouts for young people who use the net to chat, find new music and films, and also for news and research.

Iran's rulers have been well aware of the influence of the Internet and with its increasing popularity have, for several years now, been controlling access to sites through extensive filtering. A committee set up by the country's Supreme Cultural Revolution Council as well as a judiciary committee meticulously check and issue filtering orders.

A telecommunications ministry official has claimed that Iran is among the freest countries in the flow of information. "None of the sites that provide information are filtered. The number of filtered sites other than immoral ones barely reaches ten and those are the ones that contain insults to the figures trusted in our country," Iranian Labour News Agency quoted telecommunications deputy minister, Samad Momenbellah, as saying.

A director general of the Information Technology Network, Esmail Radakani, had however said two months earlier that the two committees set up for the purpose filtered nearly 1,000 new sites monthly in addition to automatic filtering applied to porn sites and proxy servers that provide access to banned sites. More than 10 million sites, 90 percent of them with immoral content, are filtered in Iran, he has been quoted as saying.

Iran recently banned broadband Internet connections for home users as well. The ban serves to prevent downloading of western cultural products like music and films. This was confirmed by a deputy of the telecommunications ministry who said that "illegal use of broadband Internet was the reason for the ban."

"It is true that the largest number of filtered sites contain pornographic or ‘immoral' content, but Internet filtering applies even more strictly to sites with political, social and ‘non-conformist' religious contents," says Arezoo (second name withheld), a student of political science at Tehran University.

"Try searching for anything related to human rights, dissident political groups and individuals or women's rights, and you will invariably encounter the words ‘access denied'. Not even one news portal or site affiliated to reformist political groups and parties, or any of those run by dissidents outside Iran, has survived banning," she said.

"Officials claim filtering targets porn. Emrouz, a reformist news portal, doesn't include any immoral content but it has been filtered for nearly three years now. So is Rooz, a Europe-based Internet newspaper. Depending on the circumstances, even conservative news sites can also be banned. A good example is Entekhab, a conservative site that has been filtered on and off for some time now," she added.

Iran has the largest number of blogs after China. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has his own blog too. Many of the blogs that are politically oriented are filtered and bloggers are intimidated, arrested and jailed from time to time.

In 2004, tens of cyber journalists and bloggers were summoned to intelligence bodies. More than twenty later claimed to have been tortured or were jailed. Some were forced to write repentance letters that were published in newspapers and others were coerced to appear on national television and confess to having attempted to overthrow the regime or other similar crimes.

The freed journalists were interviewed by the Committee for Monitoring the Implementation of the Constitution, set up by the then president Mohammad Khatami. Most of the cases were ordered to be closed but four that were in advanced stages remain.

One blogger, Arash Sigarchi, who was sentenced to 14 years is still in jail. Sigarchi was first held for two months at the start of 2005. He was sent back to prison on Jan. 26, 2006, four days after being given a three-year sentence for "insulting the Supreme Guide" and "propaganda against the regime".

"Filtering has made it easier to control cyber journalism and bloggers without resorting to such extreme measures as putting them in jail and torturing them. Filtering makes things looks cleaner to the outside world and causes less pressure from human rights bodies," the student said.

Internet is a favourite medium of communication for women's rights activists, too. All online publications of women's rights groups are strictly filtered, but activists do not relent so easily. ‘Meydane Zanan', a site set up by a group of campaigners for abolition of stoning, was filtered recently. "We have changed the address to be able to reach our audience, and will change it again if this one is filtered too," Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, one of the organisers of the campaign, told IPS.

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