During his campaign, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani made promises to improve the status of human rights in Iran, but eight months into his presidency, this has yet to happen. Now, through a social media campaign, “Unlock Iran” hopes to bring that conversation from the periphery to the fore.
As Iran and the international powers begin a new round of negotiations over the country’s nuclear program and sanctions, Unlock Iran’s goal is to making sure human rights are part of the conversation. And though the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, which runs the Unlock Iran campaign, has been publishing dense reports in both Persian and English for a decade, Unlock Iran is a new tack.
The site’s goal is to show the lives of “prisoners of rights” on a personal level. The site takes 10 of prisoners as “archetypes”—the pastor, the feminist, the scientist, the student, and so on—and tells these individuals’ stories.
For example, the “techie,” Saeed Malekpour, was living in Canada when he developed a site for uploading photos that later, unbeknownst to him, was used for uploading “adult content.” While visiting his father in Iran, he was arrested, tortured, and sent to prison for life, where he remains.
The site’s design integrates Facebook timelines and videos, and to encourage empathy also allows you to link your own Facebook account to the site, creating an Unlock Iran profile for yourself—an imagined timeline of when you got arrested, where you’re serving your sentence and posts from your friends asking where you are and sending their sympathy.
The campaign is using social media to reach a global audience: “The online, visually savvy, international community. Not just in the US, Canada or UK but worldwide,” Gissou Nia, executive director of the IHRDC, told me. Hence the site is in English, which Nia called the internet’s lingua franca.
“A lot of people are taken for questioning and then locked up,” Nia said. “You’ll see that their Facebook timelines are filled with family, friends, and activists posting on their walls and sending messages of support. A lot of the design was influenced by that.”
Both Facebook and Twitter have been banned in the country since the 2009 Green Movement, yet an estimated 2 million Iranians are on Facebook anyway. President Hassan Rouhani, as well as the unelected Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei both have Twitter accounts in English.
It’s a strange relationship between Iran’s ruling regime and social media. It was announced this week that the regime was considering blocking WhatsApp in the country because the app is now “owned” by the “American Zionist” Mark Zuckerberg.
It wasn’t that long ago—just back in November—when Iran’s Culture and Islamic Guidance Minister Ali Jannati was talking about lifting the Facebook ban, according to Bloomberg and the Islamic Republic News Agency, which makes the talk about banning WhatsApp all the more disappointing for those hoping for more openness.
“It’s indicative of tension within Iran,” Nia told me. One the one hand you’ve got the members of the government who are in favor of liberalization, and on the other, the “hardliners” in favor of banning WhatsApp, who, Nia explained, were “unelected and unaccountable factions who are more conservative.”
But Unlock Iran is wielding social media outside of the Islamic Republic’s influence. Nia told me that since launching March 3, the site had just passed 40,000 unique visitors the other day.
“In terms of human rights initiatives, 40,000 in two months is a huge number for us so we were really excited by the reception,” she said. As talks between Iran and the West continue, Unlock Iran hopes that the conversation about human rights won’t just stay on Facebook.
May 7, 2014