23rd Oct 2020


Jailing Iran’s Internet, one user at a time

  • For the Iranian government, even text messages have become an alleged crime (Photo: kamshots)

For the Iranian government, even text messages have become an alleged crime.

This September, the Revolutionary Guards arrested 11 people in the province of Shiraz for sending joke messages through the Viber application, poking fun at the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini.

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Arrestees were later forced to make television confessions. Now, officials are using this recent texting fad as an excuse to call for more Internet controls.

With accusations of conspiracy and corruption, new forms of communication have been perceived as a threat to conservative Iranian hardliners who recognize tweets, posts, chats, and texts as a path to immortality and organised political dissent.

Indeed, authorities have gone to great lengths to devise legal and digital infrastructures that enable and justify its widespread censorship.

Now, as more and more of Iran’s Internet and Smartphone users face prison cells for doing little more than expressing their views digitally, the international community should take notice and speak out – particularly European States who have been major advocates for these types of freedom.

Since president Hassan Rohani’s election in July 2013, the debate over Internet restrictions has increased inside the country.

While certain public statements – including some by Rohani – offered hope of a possible thaw of online censorship, a recent spate of group arrests and harsh sentences of Internet users have proven otherwise. In June, Iran sentenced a group of technology bloggers to a combined 36 years in prison for espionage and alleged ties to foreign media.

In July, eight Facebook activists were sentenced to a total of 127 years behind bars for posting information about Iran’s political prisoners.

Extremely long prison sentences, in particular, are being used to spread fear among online activists and users, and dissuade them from take to social media playing a role in a new wave of social and political dissent.

These long sentences not only violate international law on free expression, but they fail to abide by domestic laws as well. Article 134 of Iran’s Penal Code requires that a defendant convicted of multiple overlapping charges, all based on the same single act, only serve the sentence attributed to their most serious offence.

In most of these cases, however, judges fail to limit punishment accordingly. If it was accurately enforced, for instance, activist and lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani’s 13-year prison sentence should have been significantly reduced.

Moreover, most cases dealing with online activism are prosecuted in Revolutionary Courts, whose proceedings rarely, if ever, meet international fair trial standards.

After the Khomeini jokes went viral, Iran’s Judiciary issued a one-month ultimatum to the executive branch to ban social messaging applications, such as WhatsApp, Viber, and Tango, threatening to take appropriate measures to control them if the deadline wasn’t met.

Thus far, the Ministry of Telecommunications has claimed to be working on the issue, hoping to establish a technical way in which people can use these services and filter out the “criminal content.”

As has been proven by the increase in arrests, the judiciary and other authorities have not found this answer sufficient.

As Iranian officials debate about what is the “appropriate” level of censorship and criminalization on online activity, the world must remind them that violation of international fundamental rights is not acceptable.

At the end of October, the United Nations Human Rights Council will convene to address Iran’s rights record with a Universal Periodic Review (URP). At its last URP in 2010, Iran received 23 recommendations on the right to freedom of expression and opinion, and access to the Internet – 14 of which came from European states.

Iran voluntarily accepted 12 of those recommendations. However, in the wake of its campaign to clampdown on disfavored Internet use, the Islamic Republic has clearly failed on all of its commitments.

Hopefully, at the upcoming UPR, UN member states will express their disappointment for the wave of Internet related arrests and the lack of progress seen in fulfilling their human rights obligations.

Moreover, in November an upcoming resolution on human rights in Iran at the UN General Assembly will provide governments the opportunity to send a strong unified message of concern.

Most Europeans now takes for granted the fact that we can text jokes on Viber or post our opinions on Facebook. It is therefore time we proclaim that ordinary Iranians deserve these same basic freedoms and opportunities.

It is time for European nations – who hold freedom of expression as a fundamental value – to take the lead on setting an agenda of concern that raises the bar on Iran and helps put an end to the arbitrary wave of arrests of online activists and social media users.

The writer is a former Iranian student activist who now works as program director at the human rights group United For Iran


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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