Iran Adjusts Censorship, Maintains Propaganda Policies

Reuters points out that that project appears to have been scrapped, but that other censorship architecture has apparently been put in place to filter out individual pages that represent ideas or images deemed immoral or threatening by the regime. This new censorship technique will evidently replace the former strategy of blocking website altogether. Bidness Etc. reports that this began on Wednesday when the regime began selectively filtering the photo-sharing social network Instagram, which Iran’s internet censorship committee had previously ordered to be banned.

The reasons for the change were not immediately clear, but regime officials may be hoping that limited access to such services will give citizens less incentive to circumvent outright bans. Alternatively, the regime may see this as an opportunity to more plausibly deny the observations of human rights groups and foreign politicians regarding Iran’s limits on free speech. However, Reuters notes that the new censorship scheme may result in either less or more restrictions on overall access to information.

Even if new policies of censorship open up the internet slightly, there are other stories that demonstrate the fact that Iranians are practically restrained against using the internet or other communication tools in ways that challenge the ruling system. The Daily Beast on Friday featured a message fr om the daughter of one of many political prisoners in Iran, detailing the conditions he faces in prison and the blogging activities that led to his arrest.

The article quotes the prisoner, Mohammed Reza Pourshajar as saying that he has suffered solitary confinement and constant death threats because he “tried to share articles 17 and 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” with other Iranians. This was characterized as propaganda and acting against national security at Mr. Pourshajar’s trial.

The Daily Beast’s list of charges against him also makes clear that it is a crime in Iran to have “contacts with Mr. Ahmed Shaheed,” the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Iran. The regime has repeatedly rejected Shaheed’s reports and described him as politically biased, but independent human rights groups frequently describe the same problems related to an extraordinarily high rate of execution, political imprisonment, denial of minority rights, and internet censorship.

The fact that contact with Shaheed is specifically listed as a crime in the Islamic Republic goes to show that the regime is keen to control public perception of the human rights situation. Toward this end, it not only restricts access to existing information but also uses a large network of state media to issue contrasting statements and propaganda. Some examples of this propaganda were emphasized on Friday by the Times of Israel, in an editorial response to reports that Iran had recently unveiled a monument to Jewish soldiers who died in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.

The author declares that this is just an example of “shameful propaganda” fr om the clerical regime, aimed at convincing foreign nations that Iran does not routinely mistreat or discriminate against Jews in the country. He says furthermore that this is part of a broader trend whereby Iran attempts to confront genuine awareness of the human rights situation there.

“Nearly every time the Iranian regime’s image takes a big hit in the Western media with their poor human rights record, their shameful denials of the Holocaust, or sick calls to destroy Israel, the regime’s spinsters immediately march out the country’s Jews in their state-run media outlets to spew their ridiculous propaganda,” the Times of Israel says.

But of course the situation for Jews in the Islamic Republic of Iran is and always has been very difficult, and the Times article points out that 100,000 Iranian Jews have fled the country since the Iranian Revolution, and that many of those who served in the Iran-Iraq War were forced to do so by the government but were kept separated fr om Muslim combat troops because of the perceived ritual impurity of Jews.

As heirs to this background, the 10,000 or so Iranian Jews that remain in the country are certainly neither generally accepted nor integrated into Iranian society. This reflects a more general fear and anxiety that the regime has toward outsiders and minorities. Indeed, Iran is notorious for persecution of other religious minorities such as the Baha’i, as well as ethnic minorities like Kurds and Azeris.

But in these cases also, the regime has shown an interest in occasionally broadcasting propaganda and publicity stunts implying that such groups are treated equitably. This tendency seems to have arisen recently with respect to Afghans, who came into Iran in large numbers after being displaced by the US invasion of Afghanistan. Early in December it was reported that about 750,000 Afghans faced possible deportation if their refugee status was not extended by the Iranian government. The regime eventually relented amidst international pressure and allowed the displaced people to stay, but now the Daily Times reports that the regime is nonetheless making considerable efforts to convince Afghans to leave on their own accord, even if they were not actually born in Afghanistan.

Reza Mohseni, Iran’s Interior Ministry official for foreign nationals and expatriates told a press conference that various programs had been working toward that goal over the past three years. These have included seminars, which might rightly be described as a form of propaganda aimed at compelling Afghan-Iranians to plan their futures in line with a government narrative. 

Notably, Iran does not recognize dual citizenship, and has used this to reject efforts by foreign governments to involve themselves in the cases of dual citizens who were arrested in Iran. But Mohseni’s comments about Afghans seem to suggest that Iran rejects the notion that any of them are or could be Iranian citizens, even if they were born in the Islamic Republic. This potentially says a great deal about Iran’s desire to control propagandist narratives that might affect both how it treats people domestically and how it is perceived abroad.