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Iranian authorities banned press from national Student Day protests

In the aftermath of massive demonstrations across Iran this July protesting June’s controversial presidential election and the the closure of the reformist newspaper Salam, the Iranian government banned foreign journalists from the December 7th annual Student Day protests, and sought to halt the event altogether.

Student Day is the anniversary of the murder of three students from the University of Tehran on December 7, 1953, by Iranian police under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Every year, there are vigils and protests thoughout the country, most organized by students and taking place at university campuses. Once encouraged by the Islamic Republic of Iran, the commemoration in recent years has become an occasion for students to voice support for the free exercise of fundamental human rights. The relationship between student protesters and government officials became increasingly strained after this summer’s demonstrations.

Though Iran is notoriously strict in its press freedoms, the event is usually covered by major news outlets worldwide. But this December 5, the national Culture Ministry’s foreign press department sent a text message to journalists, photographers and cameramen working for foreign media in Iran, stating that “All permits issued for foreign media to cover news in Tehran have been revoked from December 7 to December 9.”

According to Reporters Without Borders, authorities also blocked internet access by drastically reducing web speed, disabled many cell phone lines, and arrested scores of student activists throughout the country.

“The press freedom situation is getting worse by the day in Iran,” Reporters Without Borders said in statement on December 5. “Journalists who have chosen not to leave the country are being constantly threatened or summoned by the intelligence services, including the intelligence service of the Revolutionary Guards. Some have been given long prison sentences at the end of completely illegal judicial proceedings.” The watchdog organization said that 28 journalists and bloggers were detained.

After the protest, which was reported on mainly by students though cell phone messages and hacked internet connections, U.S. President Barack Obama released a statement saying, “The Iranian people have a universal right to assembly and free speech. If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect those rights, and heed the will of its own people. It must govern through consent, and not coercion.”

image: Green Lights for Iran

Hillary Clinton in the Free Speech vs. Religion Showdown

In an apparent attempt to maintain peace, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has been advocating anti-defamation laws to combat religious slander. But a report from the U.S. State Department says the goal should be more dialogue about religion, not less.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke during the release of the annual report on international religious freedom, and came out strongly against the proposed anti-defamation laws.

“The protection of speech about religion is particularly important since persons of different faith will inevitably hold divergent views on religious questions,” she said. “These differences should be met with tolerance, not with the suppression of discourse.”

Although Secretary Clinton did not name the OIC specifically, the group of 57 countries has been pushing the U.N. Human Rights council to adopt these resolutions.

Such a broad and difficult to define act like “defamation of religion” could be easily misinterpreted or used to crack down on free speech and ethnic minority groups who are already being persecuted. There is a distinct disparity between defamation and harassment, Clinton and many others agree that there is still much to be done to cut back on the latter. While many can agree that religious persecution and discrimination is a major issue in the Middle East and around the world, this act could easily be used to hurt the cause instead of help.

As the report asserts, free speech and religious freedom can be equally upheld without one compromising the other.

Credit: Flickr, US Army