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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. 

China’s Export To Iran: ‘Clean Internet’

(Pic courtesy US News & World Report)

In a perceptive blog postDaniel Calingaert, executive vice president of the New York-based Freedom House wrote March 2013 how “Authoritarian regimes around the world are exporting their worst practices and working together to repress their own citizens and undermine human rights standards internationally.”
He went on to say that although interactions between regimes are largely opaque, methods of repression are replicated in dictatorial regimes and “direct assistance is provided across borders to crack down on dissent, and joint efforts are made to chip away at international protections for fundamental freedoms.”

Among the areas in which dictatorships cooperate said Calingeart is through technology export.

“China has set the standard for sophisticated methods of control over the internet and actively exports technology for monitoring digital communications. It has reportedly supplied telephone and internet surveillance technology to Iran and Ethiopia and provided several Central Asian governments with telecommunications infrastructure that may increase their ability to spy on their own citizens.”
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.'”
“For advocates of global Internet freedom, this is international cooperation of the worst kind imaginable. Iran already exercises strict Internet control, including censoring and filtering websites, limiting Internet speed, surveillance of Internet users and state-sponsored hacking. Unsatisfied even with this level of control over Internet use, however, Iran seeks to implement its own closed ‘national Internet’ or ‘clean Internet.’ Such a system already exists in North Korea, almost certainly developed with Chinese help given North Korea’s dependence on China,” writes Eades.
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“Moderate” Rouhani’s Government Executes Iranian Poet Hashem Shabani

The Iranian government executed by hanging poet and human rights activist Hashem Shabani on January 27 for blasphemy (“speaking against God”). Before his execution 31-year-old Shabani was imprisoned for nearly three years and reportedly tortured.
“The crazy thing is that by the logic of the Iranian government, Shaabani had to be killed. He criticized God and the punishment for blasphemy is clear: death.  Technically, Shaabani criticized the regime by speaking out against repression of ethnic Arabs in the Khuzestan province, but since the regime sees itself as the representative of God on Earth, his fate was sealed,” writes David Keyes for the Daily Beast.

Shabani was an Ahwazi Arab minority, and member of al-Hiwar, an organisation promoting Ahwazi culture among the country’s majority Persians and campaigning for mother tongue education. Al-Hiwar was banned by Iran in May 2005 soon after anti-government riots.
Shabani and four others, including school teacher Hadi Rashedi, were arrested in 2011 and had no access to lawyers or family during the first nine months of their detention. They were also reportedly tortured and otherwise ill-treated says PEN America.
More controversially, a “confession” by Shabani was publicised by Iranian television admitting that he was a member of Popular Resistance, which had ties with Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gadaffi. “Later, in a letter alleged to have been written by Sha’bani in prison, he denied having used or advocated violence and said that he had been tortured to make his ‘confession’ and that his three attempts to retract his ‘confession’ in front of a judge were ignored” said PEN.
PEN said that Shabani’s relatives had been told the poet had been executed “on charges of ‘enmity against God,’ ‘corruption on earth,’ ‘gathering and colluding against state security,’ and ‘spreading propaganda against the system.'”
Keyes asks how the US and its western allies negotiating a deal on Iran’s nuclear weapons programme could claim the regime of President Hassan Rouhani is “moderate” when it executes people like Shabani.
“As world powers attempt to negotiate an accord with Iran, they would do well to keep Shaabani in mind.  What does the hanging of a poet have to do with nuclear negotiations?  Everything. It gets to the heart of the nature of the regime. Can the world trust a government which doesn’t even trust its own people?  Can the West rely on a regime which so fears dissidents that it puts them to death?” asks Keys.
Reacting to Shabani’s hanging, Marian Botsford Fraser, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee said, “While the releases last year of prominent writers such as lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and journalist Jila Bani Yaghoub were welcome, the authorities [in Iran] must show that they are truly committed to respecting freedom of expression and other fundamental rights.”

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