That ongoing attack on free speech appears to be deepening. Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has set up Contents Working Group with the express mission of intercepting, monitoring, and evaluating SMS messages sent by Iranian citizens.
This new effort constitutes the expansion of an already thorough system of monitoring managed by the Ministry of Culture, which includes a comprehensive ban on many websites and social networks. Not content with this level of control, the ministry is also reportedly pushing for a national intranet that would close off the nation to the internet and allow most citizens access only to regime-approved contents.
Internet restrictions are often evaded by tech-savvy citizens, but these individuals are still subject to possible arrest and prosecution given the regime’s efforts to monitor posts made on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere. The inclusion of SMS messages in this monitoring apparatus would broaden prosecutions to include much more personal communications. Facebook posts have frequently led to long prison sentences, floggings, and even executions on charges such as “enmity against God.”
The threat of free speech-related death threats may be even more serious in 2015 than in the prior year for reasons other than an expansion of government monitoring. As Breitbart reported on Tuesday, the regime’s has executed at least 64 people so far in January. If this pace keeps up in subsequent months, Iran may be on track to some 1,000 executions in this calendar year, exceeding by nearly 300 the previous year’s already unusually high figures for the country with the highest per-capita rate of executions in the world.
The threat of monitoring and the threat of execution may lead some Iranian citizens to think twice before speaking out, but for others, more direct restrictions may be emerging. It has previously been reported that the Ministry of Culture was exploring the possibility of lifetime bans for journalists who publish content deemed objectionable by the regime.
In a follow-up report on the banning of the newspaper Mardom-e Emrooz, been explained on Tuesday that the incident had been perceived by some journalists as an example of a shift in the domestic climate, and by others as an incidence of the regime using highly visible headlines, namely those surrounding the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Prais, in order to execute an agenda that had already been in place.
For many opponents of the regime, these bans, execution statistics, and other developments seriously undermine assertions that Iran has hopes of moderation under President Hassan Rouhani.