Home News Human Rights Is Tehran Losing its Hold on National Information?

Is Tehran Losing its Hold on National Information?

On Saturday, IranWire highlighted successful activist campaigns on Facebook as one example of the latter trend. Specifically, it pointed to the ongoing impact of the “My Stealthy Freedom” Facebook page, which was launched by London-based Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad in May 2014. The page encourages women to upload photos of themselves expressing freedom in private moments out-of-doors, by casting off the legally mandated head coverings that are often held up as a symbol of the conflict between women’s rights and the type of fundamentalist Islam espoused by the Iranian regime.

IranWire argues that Alinejad’s campaign has had influence beyond the simple expression of a popular push for the freedom of women to choose their own attire and generally enjoy the same freedoms as men in Iranian society. The broad-based participation in that campaign has apparently also contributed to the rise of citizen journalism in Iran. Persons who began publicly engaging with the women’s rights issue through the Facebook page alone have now reportedly moved on to using social media and the internet to highlight specific curtailments of women’s rights, as well as bringing attention to abuses that the regime has attempted to sweep under the rug in official media.

One prominent example of this was last year’s acid attacks centered in the city of Isfahan. It appears that there have been more than 25 such attacks, but Iran’s official media attempted to limit the number of reported incidents as well as distancing them from their apparent motives, namely perceived “bad hijab” on the part of the victims. Activists and foreign media in turn connected these motives to the state’s efforts to give greater powers to a hardline civilian militia tasked with publicly confronting perceived violations of Islamic law.

These and similar efforts seem to indicate a conservative crackdown across Iranian society and an effort to enforce ideological purity. But mass protests against the acid attacks, together with ongoing civilian reporting of human rights issues, point to a contrary trend toward coordinated effort by Iranian progressives. Viewed together, these two trends may anticipate growing bifurcation of Islamic society, and fairly open conflict between the two sides.

Of course, this remains a challenge for pro-democratic and pro-women’s rights elements of the population because they still face outright repression in addition to attempted government controls over the flow of information. There is no shortage of examples of this repression, with one of the most recent and prominent being the case of Atena Farghadani, the young artist who was sentenced in June to 12 years and nine months in prison for drawing a political cartoon and posting it to her Facebook page.

The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reports that Farghadani apparently went on a hunger strike on or near the 10th of September, and was found to be in an extremely weak condition when visited in prison by her mother on the 13th. The protest is reportedly in response to continual verbal abuse by prison authorities, much of it consisting of taunting references to the case against her lawyer, who was charged with “non-adultery illegitimate relations” based on his shaking his client’s hand when he visited her to discuss her case.

These ongoing repressions in addition to the extremely harsh jail sentence give some indication of how seriously the regime is taking cases of open dissent, especially those involving the use of difficult-to-control media like Facebook. The social networking platform is banned throughout, but young, educated Iranians tend to easily evade those blocks, for instance by using proxy servers.

In the past, regime officials have made bold claims about their technical ability to monitor online communications and to block objectionable content. These include statements early this year about the potential advent of smart-filtering, which would block individual images and keywords without the need for denying access to entire websites. But many of these sorts of claims have proven to be falsifiable, and the older methods of control over the internet remain in place and largely unchanged.

Another claim emerged on Monday that is likely to prove to be false as well. According to the International Campaign, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme Cyberspace Council, Mohammad Hassan Entezari claimed that a portion of the servers for the instant messaging app Telegram are housed in Iran. If true, this would give the Iranian government direct access to the private communications of potentially millions of Iranians. But Entezari’s claims have been categorically denied by spokespersons for Telegram, who say that all servers for Iranian users are housed in Amsterdam and will remain there.

The apparently bogus claim by Entezari comes shortly after Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei consolidated power for internet monitoring into the hands of the Cyberspace Council, thus circumventing regional authorities and giving himself virtually unilateral control over internet policy. Both of these moves can easily be seen as part of an effort to intimidate the population by giving the impression that Tehran’s control over internet communications extend further than they do.

When viewed alongside the repressive measures being taken against such people Farghadani, this may discourage some ordinary Iranians from taking what they perceive as unjustifiable chances in engaging in civilian journalism or online activism. But at the same time, there are indications that the Iranian regime may be resigned to the division between its supporters and the targets of this repression, who are unlikely to embrace official news reporting an propaganda.

The latest such indication comes in the form of the launch of the Line of Hezbollah, a new publication that The Guardian described on Monday as a means for the supreme leader to “sharpen his ideological message.” That publication reprints, analyzes, and expands upon Ayatollah Khamenei’s own hardline communications, including his recent speeches calling for vigilant resistance to any Western influence in the wake of July’s nuclear agreement.

The Guardian argues that the launch of the Line of Hezbollah actually diminishes the status of Kayhan newspaper, which had previously been regarded as the direct mouthpiece for Khamenei’s office, albeit one that presented the supreme leader’s views in a way that at least gave the appearance of straightforward news. The new publication has a more explicit voice, and so its content can be seen essentially as preaching to the choir.

In other words, if the Line of Hezbollah is the new face of Iranian media, it certainly aims to maintain ideological purity, but only among those who already tend to agree with the ruling authorities.

However, another possible motive behind this shift may be the desire to make the traditional hardline outlets like Kayhan look more legitimate by comparison, thus giving the impression that they are a genuine reflection of popular opinion in Iran. And this may be in keeping with broader trends, as well. In discussing the circumstances of their interview with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, which aired on Sunday, CBS News pointed out that they were allowed to interview the Iranian people when they visited the country last year, but in the latest instance they spoke to Rouhani but not to Iranians on the street.

Rouhani has been embraced as a moderate by some in the West, although this characterization has been vigorously disputed by Iranian dissidents and reformist citizens, who point to continuing repressions and a rising rate of executions as evidence that he holds largely the same views as the country’s higher authorities. By encouraging foreign contact with Rouhani and discouraging it with the Iranian people, the regime as a whole may be expressing its belief that Rouhani will not buck the system, while some citizens may feel increasingly comfortable expressing dissent to foreign media.