News / Middle East

In Iran, Internet is Lifeline and a Noose

Following last year's hotly contested elections in Iran, the Internet, social networking sites, blogs and cellphones were an empowering tool in the hand of opposition forces and everyday citizens.  One year later,  the same technologies are not only being used to silence the Iranian government's critics and dissent, they are helping to create an environment that analysts and bloggers say is more dangerous and severe.  

Iranian journalist and blogger Omid Memarian says the pictures and videos that were posted online last year showing protesters taking to the streets and authorities crushing dissent gave the world a rare glimpse of Iran's leadership.

"I think that the most important thing that has happened after the Iranian elections is that the image that we have of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the image that we have from Iranian authorities, we have seen how brutal they can be, and how they can be harsh against their critics," said Omid Memarian.

Listen to Bill Ide's complete audio report:

The international media group Reporters Without Borders says during the past year, at least 170 journalists and bloggers have been arrested in Iran, and 22 have been sentenced to jail terms totaling more than 135 years.

Memarian says it has become riskier than ever in Iran to write and criticize the government.

"They have filtered the Internet," he said. "They have even sentenced those who have sent text messages to their friends.  So, they have tried to dominate the narrative and block the flow of information and, to some extent, they have been successful."

The deputy director of programs at the U.S.-based rights group Freedom House, Daniel Calingaert, says while videos and photographs of events on the streets of Iran are still getting on the World Wide Web, activists are being more careful about how they use the Internet.

"If you look back a year, activists and ordinary citizens were very open about what they would say on the Internet and how they would exchange information," said Daniel Calingaert. "And in the meantime, the Iranian regime has become a lot more sophisticated with surveillance, with intercepting e-mail communications.  In many cases, we know that when activists are arrested or detained, one of the first things that they are asked is their e-mail password."

Calingaert adds authorities use the passwords to look at the activists' contacts and communications.  Authorities are also using photographs posted on the Internet to identify protesters and round them up.

"It is tougher and it is a lot more dangerous," he said. "The regime has been very brutal toward activists in person.  There are several who have been executed even.  But, at the same time, the Internet is still a lifeline for information both, to stay in touch, for activists outside to stay in touch with fellow activists inside, and for people inside to tell people outside what is going on."  

Stanford University Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law Director Larry Diamond says in past two years states like Iran and China have started to use technology more effectively than their critics.

"Authoritarian regimes have probably made more progress in suppressing, surveilling, controlling and manipulating, the use of the Internet and related digital technologies than democratic and civil society forces have made progress in utilizing them to advance freedom," said Larry Diamond.

Diamond says that part of the reason is that authoritarian countries are working together to silence dissent.

"We have growing evidence [authoritarian regimes] are actively sharing their methods and techniques and transferring software and technical skills across boundaries that promote authoritarian censorship of the Internet, including Internet filtration systems," he said.

Earlier this year, the U.S. State Department launched an effort to promote Internet freedom around the world.  A key goal is to give Internet users tools to help them get around government controls and have freer access to the Web.

The Freedom House's Calingaert says such efforts to bypass filtering are important and helpful, but they should not be a substitute for traditional human-rights efforts by Washington.

"If you look at the case of Egypt for instance, there is very little filtering," said Calingaert. "I mean the Internet has pretty much anything anyone wants to say is there.  But the most high-profile bloggers are in jail, and that sends a pretty clear message to other bloggers who want to be critical about the regime.  Anti-censorship tools are not going to solve that problem."

Diamond says the online clashes between authoritarian governments and dissidents involve very complex battles, and the skill and resolve on each side is constantly evolving, making it difficult to predict the ultimate outcome.

"I think that eventually these technologies will outrun the capacities of authoritarian regimes to manage them and will be a net plus in terms of the expansion of freedom and the promotion of democracy in authoritarian countries around the world," said Diamond.

Iranian journalist and blogger Omid Memarian agrees that eventually Tehran's monopoly over the media and information will be broken, even though fighting the government comes at a very high price.  And once it is, he is optimistic that changes will come quickly.   

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