In Iran, blogs on the Internet now under attack by conservative regime

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Vahid Salemi, Associated Press
Iranian blogger Hanif Mazroui was arrested in 1994 and charged with acting against the Islamic system through his writings. He was jailed for 66 days and then acquitted. Three months ago, he was summoned once again by authorities and told never to write about the nuclear issue. Soon after his release, he shut down his blog.
By Lara Sukhtian, The Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- On his last visit to Iran, Canadian-based blogger Hossein Derakhshan was detained and interrogated, then forced to sign a letter of apology for his blog writings before being allowed to leave the country.

Compared to others, Mr. Derakhshan is lucky.

  
Iran's filtering, blocking tools

A 2004 study by a group called the OpenNet Initiative made these findings about Iran's efforts to block Internet material that the government deems inappropriate:
Iran used U.S. commercial software to block both English-language sites hosted overseas and Farsi-language sites originating inside Iran. It used a software program called SmartFilter, developed and sold by a U.S.-based company, Secure Computer.
A total of 499 sites were blocked out of 1,477 tested in November 2004, and 623 sites were filtered out of a total of 2,025 tested in December 2004.
Many different kinds of sites were blocked, including pornographic sites, women's rights sites and sites with homosexual material. Also blocked were "anonymizer" tools that allow users to surf the Internet anonymously. The government also blocked many weblogs.
Iran has an extensive set of laws that provide a back-up system to the filtration process. Individual subscribers to Internet service providers (ISP) must sign a document promising not to access non-Islamic sites. All ISPs must install filtering mechanisms for both Web sites and e-mail.
-- The Associated Press
  

Dozens of Iranian bloggers over the last two years have faced harassment by the government, been arrested for voicing opposing views, and fled the country in fear of prosecution.

In the conservative Islamic Republic, where the government has vast control over newspapers and the airwaves, weblogs are one of the last bastions of free expression, where people can speak openly about everything from sex to the nuclear controversy.

But increasingly, they are coming under threat of censorship.

The Iranian blogging community, known as Weblogistan, is relatively new. It sprang to life in 2001 after hardliners -- fighting back against a reformist president -- shut down more than 100 newspapers and magazines and detained writers. At the time, Derakhshan posted instructions on the Internet in Farsi on how to set up a weblog.

Since then, the community has grown dramatically. Athough exact figures are unknown, experts estimate there are somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 active weblogs in Iran. The vast majority are in Farsi but a few are in English.

Overall, the percentage of Iranians now blogging is "gigantic," said Curt Hopkins, director of an online group called the Committee to Protect Bloggers, who lives in Seattle, Wash.

"They are a talking people, very intellectual, social, and have a lot to say. And they are up against a small group (in the government) that are trying to shut everyone up," said Mr. Hopkins.

To bolster its campaign, the Iranian government has one of the most extensive and sophisticated operations to censor and filter Internet content of any country in the world -- second only to China, Hopkins said.

It also is one of a growing number of Mideast countries that rely on U.S. commercial software to do the filtering, according to a 2004 study by a group called the OpenNet Initiative. The software that Iran uses blocks both internationally hosted sites in English and local sites in Farsi, the study found.

The filtering process is backed by laws that force individuals who subscribe to Internet service providers to sign a promise not to access non-Islamic sites. The same laws also force ISPs to install filtering mechanisms.

The filtering "is systematically getting worse," said Mr. Derakhshan.

But is the government threatened because the tens of thousands of Iranian blogs are all throwing insults at it, or calling for revolution? Not quite.

The debates on Iranian weblogs are rarely political. The most common issues are cultural, social and sexual. Blogs also are a good place to chat in a society where young men and women cannot openly date. There are blogs that discuss women's issues, and ones that deal with art and photography.

But in Iran, activists say all debates are equally perceived as a threat by the authorities. Bloggers living in Iran understand that better than anyone else.

"I am very careful. Every blogger in Iran who writes in his/her name must be careful. I know the red lines and I never go beyond them," said Parastoo Dokouhaki, 25, who runs one of Iran's most popular blogs. "And these days, the red lines are getting tighter."

Ms. Dokouhaki doesn't directly write about politics. She sticks mostly to social issues, but in Iran, that is also a taboo subject.

"I write about the social consequences of government decisions and they don't like it, because they can't control it," said Ms. Dokouhaki.

Outright political bloggers have an even tougher time.

Hanif Mazroui was arrested in 1994 and charged with acting against the Islamic system through his writings. He was jailed for 66 days and then acquitted.

"It's normal for authorities to summon and threaten bloggers," said Mr. Mazroui. The government continued to harass him and three months ago, he was summoned once again by the authorities and told never to write about the nuclear issue. Soon after his release, he shut down his weblog.

"They kept pressuring me," he said.

Arash Sigarchi, an Iranian journalist and blogger, was arrested and charged with insulting the country's leader, collaborating with the enemy, writing propaganda against the Islamic state and encouraging people to jeopardize national security.

He had been in jail for 60 days when he was sentenced to 14 years in jail. He appealed the decision and was released on bail. But though his sentence has been reduced to three years, he still faces charges of insulting the leader and writing propaganda.

Another, Mojtaba Saminejad, has been in prison since February 2005. He was first arrested in November 2004 for speaking out against the arrest of three colleagues. According to the Committee to Protect Bloggers, Mr. Saminejad's Web site was hacked into by people linked to the Iranian Hezbollah movement.

After his release, he relaunched his blog at a new address, which led to his second arrest in February 2005. He was sentenced to two years in prison, and then given an extra 10 months for inciting "immorality."

Despite the crackdown, most Iranian bloggers say the government is not interested in eliminating the blogging trend altogether.

Instead, they believe authorities understand its power and want to use it to further their own goals.

Farid Pouya, a Belgian-based Iranian blogger, notes the government has just launched a competition for the best four blogs. The subjects: the Islamic revolution and the Koran.

"The government has observed carefully and learned that blogs are important ... and they want to capitalize on that," she said. "They want to lead the movement, they want to control it."


Samples of postings on Iranian blogs

By The Associated Press

A look at postings found on Iranian blogs, both those hosted inside Iran and outside the country:

A March 8 entry on Canadian-based Iranian Hossein Derakhshan's blog:
   "Iran wants to do (uranium) enrichment in its soil and the West doesn't accept it. So I have a suggestion: What if Iran declares one of its free trade zones, such as Gheshm, as an international zone completely governed by the U.N. with Iranian's co-operation. And then they do whatever nuclear research they want to do there, under the full inspection of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), while it's still inside Iran?"


A recent entry from the Iranian-based blog Under Underground, posted by a writer who called himself Yasser from Tehran:
   "Persian New Year is nearing, so the streets are filled with people shopping for new clothes, fruits and other delicious foods. They are reluctant to think about what is waiting for them in the coming year. Maybe next year everything will remain the same as today and yesterday ... or maybe war, long queues (due to sanctions), the death of children (due to undernourishment caused by sanctions), and warning sirens (from missile attacks) are expecting us in the New Year."

Recent entries from the Iranian-based blog A Glinting Glimpse from Above the Wall, posted by a writer who called herself "an Iranian girl":
   "Do they (Iranians) hate Israel? Hate western values? In Iran, the only vice is the regime's. What you see in TV is not the face of the Iranian people. I know imagining such a thing for those who were born in a free country is difficult, but it's a fact that a small minority is speaking for all the society."
   "You see people in the streets shouting 'Down with USA and Israel.' Don't believe it! It's not the truth. The real people are those who will get in jail and probably tortured, even killed if they say what they think -- and by the way, there is no way to expose their thoughts at all unless in weblogs as you can see today."
   "Remember people gathered for 9-11's victims in Mohseni square in Tehran and gave their silence, respect and sympathy to the American people with their tears and candles."

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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