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Liberals And Conservatives Clash Over Iran’s Internet Control

(Pic courtesy AP)

The conservative hardliners and the more liberal moderates in Iranian President Hassan Rowhani’s government are divided over how closed they can keep the internet. The differences are part of a larger issue of balancing the distribution of political power between the liberal and conservative wings of the regime.
Rowhani and his supporters favour selective dismantling of restrictions to the internet and to information in general. The conservatives however believe it will clash with Islamic values.

“We cannot restrict the advance of [such technology] under the pretext of protecting Islamic values,” Ali Jannati, Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance was quoted by The Washington Post as observing at a meeting with Iran’s chamber of commerce. The Post said he had described Iran’s post-Revolution attempts at controlling the information, including the internet, as “ridiculous.”
Among the restrictions are government licensing of newspapers, books and film as well as content control. The Post said that moves to issue licences to reporters however had resulted in 400 journalists writing to the government in protest.
The tug-of-war between the conservatives and liberals is also seen in the announcement some weeks ago that Iran was going to set up its own internet which it described as “clean internet” and for which it had enlisted China’s help.
In an article on February 12, in The US News and World Report, Mark Eades said that Iran had announced recently that it had received Chinese help “to implement its closed ‘National Information Network’ or ‘clean Internet.'”    
Praising China for its “four decades of good experiences in the application development services for information technology,” Iran’s head of internet and communication technology Nasarollah Jahangard said. “We hope to use these experiences.”
The words of Jannati and Jahangard delineate the stark difference in outlook between the conservatives and liberals. 

Does Nuke Deal Point To Domestic Reforms In Iran?

Iran President Hassan Rouhani (Pic. courtesy Deutsche Welle)

The deal signed between Iran and the P5+1 countries early Sunday, has given fresh life to speculation whether the agreement will allow Teheran to crackdown with greater ease on dissidents, human rights defenders and independent journalists, now that western liberal governments are mollified by freeze on the country’s nuclear programme. The deal comes less than week after Reporters without Borders (RSF) reported lukewarm progress in Iran to ease constraints on censorship and freedom of information. 

“[President Hassan] Rouhani repeatedly said during his campaign that ‘all the political prisoners should be released.’ He also said on several occasions that he wanted a change ‘in favour of free speech and media freedom,'” said the Paris-based RSF in a statement on November 19. “…Nonetheless, despite the release of some prisoners of conscience, Iran continues to be one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists and netizens, with around 50 currently detained.
“At least 10 more journalists and bloggers have been arrested since his election victory, 10 others have been sentenced to a combined total of 72 years in prison and three newspapers have been closed or forced to suspend publishing under pressure from the authorities.”
Fear that a nuclear deal would help Rouhani to crackdown more severely on dissidents was also expressed by Iranian Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi in a widely-publicised interview on November 6 with Associated Press.
“Ebadi expressed hope that nuclear negotiations between Iran and six world powers, which are set to resume Thursday, will lead to the end of U.S.-led sanctions and a settlement of the stalemate with the West over Tehran’s nuclear program. ‘But I have doubts,’ she quickly added, ‘and I think it’s too early to be optimistic.'” AP reported.
Detailing a series of abuses since Rouhani came to power Ebadi also referred political prisoners continuing to remain behind bars. “In another rights crackdown, she said, the editor of the reformist newspaper Bahar was jailed last week for publishing an article on Shiite Islam deemed offensive by authorities in the Islamic Republic, a predominantly Shiite nation. He was released on ‘hefty’ bail after two days but the paper remains closed,” AP quoted Ebadi as saying.
But this view is contested. The Berlin/Bonn-based Deutsche Welle (DW) quotes Siebo Janssena, political scientist based in Cologne who says that the successful negotiation of the nuclear deal could also signal domestic reforms.
“‘Rouhani is president of Iran today because the electorate is thirsting for economic, social and cultural reforms,’ Janssen said. Iranians have even called for the improvement of the human rights situation in the country.
“According to Janssen, Rouhani still enjoys the confidence of the great majority of Iranians. He could, however, rapidly lose that support if he does not soon implement his reform plan,” said DW.

Therefore, it could be that all is not lost and the international community should use the interim of six months before a long-term agreement is initialled to press for more reforms on some human rights issues at least – especially those Rouhani promised during his election campaign.

Charm Offensives Through Twitter

President Hassan Rouhani

 As social media becomes popular in repressive societies with pro-democracy activists using it as a platform in their confrontation with governments, autocrats too have been quick to learn the use of such technology to push forward their version of things and regime propaganda.
An initiative that gained much publicity recently was Iran’s newly-elected leader President Hassan Rouhani wishing Rosh Hashanah on twitter. Although there is some confusion as to whether he actually tweeted Jewish New Year greetings (Wall Street Journal reported he had not), the political implications of autocratic regimes messaging using twitter was featured in a recent article in the New Republic.
“I don’t want to rain on anyone’s New Year’s parade, but it’s worth pointing out that Twitter hasn’t reformed the other unsavory political leaders who have used it as a mouthpiece,” writes Nora Caplan-Bricker.
You can access the article here