Education International
Education International

Iran: The internet fosters free expression

published 10 September 2008 updated 10 September 2008

Iranians are using the internet to exercise their right to free expression as never before - despite strict prohibitions and severe penalties imposed by the authorities.

Early in 2007, Iranian teachers repeatedly demonstrated at the Parliament in Tehran to back their strike demands for better salaries, improved working conditions and freedom for hundreds of jailed colleagues. Teachers used their mobile phones to make videos of their protest and posted them on the internet. An EI letter of solidarity received an unexpectedly large audience after it was translated into Persian and at least a dozen bloggers posted it on their sites. Thus, powerful images of dissent and words of support were quickly communicated to untold numbers of people, both within and beyond Iran’s borders. These recent internet developments, known as Web 2.0, are allowing courageous voices from Iran to be heard all over the world. More than seven million Iranians are internet users, and there are an estimated 400,000 blogs in Persian—an incredibly high number for a country that, by law, requires every website or blog to be registered. Emboldened by the anonymity of the internet, English-language blogs by Iranians have also begun proliferating across cyberspace. The Islamic Republic of Iran has one of the most extensive internet technical filtering systems in the world, according to the OpenNet Initiative, a collaborative project of Harvard Law School and the Universities of Toronto, Oxford and Cambridge. Most websites that contain information relating to political or religious dissent, or pornographic material, are blocked. Because the national media is under strict government control, most journalists exercise self-censorship for self-protection. As a result, blogs have become increasingly important alternative news sources and are increasingly threatening to the regime, which is reacting with ever-harsher measures. If a new proposed law is passed, bloggers and other cyber-commentators could face execution on grounds of “disrupting the mental security” of Iranians. The national Defenders of Human Rights Centre released a statement protesting the bill, arguing that it “not only ‎increases the number of crimes punishable by death, but also endangers the security of ‎citizens if it is passed given its deficiencies.” ‎ The Iranian Penal Code already forbids content-based crimes such as “propaganda against the state,” while leaving “propaganda” undefined. Article 513 allows for the death penalty or imprisonment of up to five years for speech deemed to be an “insult to religion,” but leaves “insult” undefined. Article 609 criminalizes criticism of state officials in connection with their work, and calls for a punishment of a fine, 74 lashes, or three to six months in prison. Living under the threat of prosecution, Iranians find other creative ways to express their views and hopes. Like the UK’s acclaimed and illusive Banksy, Iranian graffiti artist Icy creates his art on the streets of Tehran and then posts it on photo-sharing sites like Flickr.com. Similarly, video makers have used YouTube.com to document events like the cruel execution of young homosexuals by hanging, police brutality against demonstrating university students, and the defiance of women protesting for equality rights. Ironically, even as the government is actively blocking foreign and local websites and using draconian legal measures to prosecute users, it is also using the internet to promote its own messages. For example, in an effort to discredit the teachers’ protest last year, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei made a speech in which he claimed the “enemies of the Iranian nation” were manipulating the teachers to create “discord among the people.” The videotaped speech was later posted on YouTube.com. Even President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has his own blog, with content in Persian, English, French and Arabic. By Harold Tor

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 27, September 2008.