Digital media

According to Internet World Stats, Iran, with a population of 82 million, had 56.7 million Internet users in June 2016, with a penetration of 69 percent . The fast development of Internet (there were only 250,000 users in year 2000) has resulted in a huge increase in the number of blogs and the use of the new communication technology for the dissemination of news and debate on sensitive issues, partly as a response to the closure of several dozens reformist newspapers.

Hossein Derakhshan, at the time 26 years old, gained his reputation of ‘Blogging grandfather’, or ‘Blogfather’ of Iran by starting the first blog in Farsi in 2001, called Sardabir: khodam (Editor: Myself). In the same year he published online a manual on how to setup and manage a Persian-language blog. His example was soon followed by a large number of Iranians, to the point that in 2006 Farsi was listed by the publisher advertisement platform Technorati among the ten most common languages among bloggers. Thousands, and soon tens of thousands of Iranians, among them many women, started online debates that could no longer find voice in the press due to the increasing pressure on reformist publications. These debates included not only political ones, but also sensitive social issues, such as relations between men and women, prohibited mix parties, sex and in general behaviors banned by the strict Islamic rules imposed by law in Iran.

As it had happened before with the first satellite TVs broadcasting into Iran, the authorities got alarmed for what they saw as a new attempt of the United States and other Western powers to disseminate moral corruption and encourage political rebellion, and by the mid-2000s they started to respond. With the arrests of several bloggers - including Derakhshan, that has spent six years in prison, from 2008 to 2014 - but also with new initiatives to strengthen the control of the Web and blocking tens of thousands of sites. These efforts have continued after the appearance of social media, that have played a central role in the street protests of 2009. In that year, according to the NGO Freedom House, a corporation linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC, the Pasdaran) bought a major stake in the Telecommunications Company of Iran (TCI) in “an ostensible privatisation process”, while the government retained the ownership of most of the remaining portion. A transaction that “effectively gave the IRGC indirect control over the country’s dominant providerof fixed-line, mobile and Internet communication services.” Direct access to the Internet through satellite is prohibited for private citizens. Based on the Computer Crime Law (CCL), ratified in 2009, service providers are responsible for any content shared online and have to close down the sites identified by a governmental committee for broadly defined violations, including the distribution of pornographic content. In January 2011 Iran has created a Cyber Police unit. In December of 2012 the chief of the unit for Tehran was dismissed over the death in detention of Sattar Beheshti, a 35-years-old blogger that had been arrested for criticizing the regime and that is believed to have been tortured to death. According to Freedom House, at least 50 bloggers were imprisoned in the years 2009 and 2010, and three - Saeed Malekpour, Vahid Asghari and Ahmad Reza Hashempour - were sentenced to death between October 2011 and January 2012, even though there is no news of their executions. The arrests, at a lower rate, have continued in more recent years.

Ali Jannati, who became minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance in 2013 in the new government of President Hassan Rouhani, has repeatedly stressed the need to loosen the strict policies on the use of Internet. Jannati, quoted by Jason Rezaian in an article for The Washington Post in 2014, described many of the policies that Iran has adopted since the 1979 Islamic revolution to control the flow of information, including Internet filtering, as “ridiculous.” “We cannot restrict the advance of such technology under the pretext of protecting Islamic values,” Jannati said. But one year later he resigned, and repressive actions to control and censor activities on the Internet have kept strengthening. Since 2011 Iranian authorities are also talking about a project to develop a ‘national Internet’ (also referred to as ‘clean’ or ‘halal’ Internet), separate from the World Wide Web and similar to systems already in use in North Korea and Cuba.

The response of the authorities, however, has not been limited to repressive initiatives. Since the 2000s, thousands of pro-government blogs have been opened, including the one of then President Ahmadinejad in 2006. The online presence of these sites, together with that of all Iranian newspapers and agencies, foreign media, bloggers and dissident groups - although often reachable only with the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and other illegal anti-filtering systems - offers the Iranian audience great opportunities of access to information and a space where a political debate remains possible in spite of the limitations that keep being imposed on the freedom of expression.