Press freedom in Iran 2012

PUBLISHED ON MONDAY 12 MARCH 2012 by Reporters Without Borders

The announced launching of Iran’s “National Internet” has been widely covered in the media. Meanwhile the authorities have fortified filtering and their technical capacity to closely monitor the Web. Individuals and groups alike have been arrested in order to identify and neutralize dissident networks and intimate bloggers and journalists. For the first time, four netizens have been given the death penalty, and three of them may be executed at any time. Iran’s already harsh repression has become even more brutal.

Sentenced to death for their online activities

This is the first time that netizens have been sentenced to death. On January 29, 2012, the Iranian Farsnews agency, with close ties to the Guardians of the Revolution, confirmed the sentencing to death of Web developer Saeed Malekpour, a permanent resident of Canada, for “anti-government agitation” and “insulting Islam.”

In early 2012, Iran’s Supreme Court also confirmed the death sentence for IT student Vahid Asghari and website administrator Ahmadreza Hashempour. The Revolutionary Court’s Fifteenth Chamber informed Web developer and humorist Mehdi Alizadeh that he had been sentenced to death.

These four netizens, who are between 25 and 40, are victims of a plot orchestrated by the Center for the Surveillance of Organized Crime, an entity created illegally in 2008 by the Revolutionary Guards. Under torture, the accused admitted having links with websites that criticize Islam and the Iranian government, and to having intended to “mislead” Iranian youth by distributing pornographic content. They were also forced to confess to participating in a plot backed by the United States and Israel.

Waves of arrests with no end in sight

These waves of arrests sometimes coincide with anniversary dates likely to generate unrest. They may also be tied to internal tensions between the various power circles. They can occur at unpredictable moments in order to mislead dissidents, disrupt their independent publications, and create a continuous climate of suspicion. The most recent series of arrests occurred in May and June 2011 during the anniversary of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection, as well as in early 2012, just before the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution and the two widespread protests of February 14 and March 1, 2012.

Reporters Without Borders counted 29 netizen arrests between March 1, 2011 and March 1, 2012. Eleven netizens received sentences ranging from three to six years. Fifteen were released on parole. They are awaiting their trial and verdict with little hope for leniency.

In February 2012, Mehdi Khazali, son of an influential conservative religious leader, was sentenced to four years in prison for regularly posting criticisms of the Iranian president on his blog.

Sakhi Righi, whose blog is balochistan-s, was arrested on June 18, 2009 in his native city of Zahedan. His prison sentence was the harshest one ever served on a blogger in Iran – 20 years – for “publishing false information” and committing ”acts against national security.”

To learn more, read the articles about freedom of information violations in Iran since January 1, 2012, andin 2011.

Inhuman and degrading treatments, and pressures of all kinds

Detainees are repeatedly tortured and mistreated, and further victimized by defamation campaigns and forced confessions shown on Iranian TV.

Many arbitrarily detained journalists and netizens are being denied medical treatment for illnesses despite their physical and psychological deterioration. The state of health of the following detainees is particularly worrying: Masoud Bastani, Issa Saharkhiz, Mohammad Sadigh Kaboudvand, Hossein Ronaghi Maleki, Saeed Matinepour, Mehdi Mahmudian, Kivan Samimi Behbani, and Arash Honarvar Shojai. Their very lives are at stake.

The authorities have not hesitated to harass relatives or separate families. Parvin Mokhtare, the mother of jailed blogger Kouhyar Goudarzi, was sentenced to 23 months in prison by a revolutionary court in the city of Kerman.

Those who are released on bail are forced to post exorbitant amounts of money. Blogger and women’s rights activist Parastoo Dokoohaki, and Sahamoldin Borghani, a journalist who writes for the news website Irdiplomacy, were released at the end of February 2012. Arrested in January, they had been held in solitary confinement in Sections 209 and 2 A of Tehran’s Evin prison, which are run by the Intelligence Ministry and the Revolutionary Guards. The journalists were freed after posting bonds in the amounts of 300 and 200 million tomans, respectively (USD 19,700 and USD 15,800).

The day before their release, the Revolutionary Guards’ organized crime unit, in a statement posted on the Gerdab website, accused them of “collaborating with the BBC, British intelligence and the foreign-based opposition.” The Revolutionary Guards had announced that an operation code-named “eye of the fox” had led to the breakup of an information-gathering network that produced content for the BBC en Iran. The British broadcaster denied that it had employed staff in Iran. Satellite stations such as the BBC and Voice of America had been jammed at regular intervals in Iran. On March 5, 2012, confessions of this operation’s victims – for the most part excerpts from their interrogations – were broadcast on national TV channels and relayed by Press TV, the Islamic Republic’s English-language station.

In early March 2012, a few days before Iran’s “International Women’s Day,” the regime intensified its crackdown on cyberfeminists, including Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, founder of the Feminist School website, and one of the women who organized the “One Million Signatures for Equality” campaign, which calls for reforming laws that discriminate against women. Cyberfeminists are frequent victims of threats and arrests.

Another sign of the authorities’ intransigence was the regime’s refusal to accept a visit from Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran.

New regulations are bolstering Iran’s legislative arsenal

At a news conference on December 28, 2011 – the day for registering candidates for the March 2012 parliamentary elections – Abdosamad Khoramabadi, the Prosecutor-General’s legal adviser, unveiled “a list of 25 election-related Internet crimes.” Among the contents deemed “criminal” are: calling for an election boycott, the publication of counter-revolutionary or opposition logos or website contents, etc.

Under the new 20-point regulations for cybercafés published by the Iranian Internet police on December 28, 2011, clients are required to produce an ID. Managers must install cameras on the premises and keep the camera recordings, along with all the details of their clients and a list of the websites they visited. The use of software to circumvent content filtering, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and USB flash drives is banned. After raiding 43 cybercafés in Birjand (in the southern province of Khorasan), the police closed six of them for “non-compliance with security measures and the use of censorship circumvention software.”

Social networks demonized

The regime continues to demonize new media, claiming that they serve foreign interests and are “means of subversion.” On July 29, 2011, Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi stressed “society’s vulnerability to social networks introduced in the country by the enemy.” Two days before, Interior Minister Mostafa Najar had stated that “satellites and Facebook are the electronic means of a ‘soft war’ by the West intended to cause the Iranian family’s collapse.”

The June 2011 announcement by the United States that it is developing a “shadow Internet" or “Internet in a suitcase” that will enable citizens anywhere in the world to have access to the Web – one that will work even if a government had shut down the national Internet, caused Iran to immediately adopt a tougher line and announce that it had the means to block this new technology.

Cybercensorship under full steam

Cybercensorship constitutes a major investment for the Iranian government (read the Iran chapter of the 2011 “Enemies of the Internet” report for more information). As evidenced from the last few months, Iran’s technological advances show that surveillance is spreading in an increasingly sophisticated manner from one computer to the next. Censors can match a suspicious email with the sender’s IP address. While most dissidents are very well aware of what precautions to take online, the slightest error or lack of attention can be fatal.

In August 2011, Gmail users became victims of a“man-in-the-middle attack (MTM) via a fraudulent SSL certificate originally delivered by the Dutch company DigiNotar, which finally revoked it. Computer security firm F-Secure was reported by Agence France-Presse to have said: “It’s likely the Government of Iran is using these techniques to monitor local dissidents.”

Internet access cut-offs and a general slowing down of Internet bandwidth to disrupt communications have become commonplace in periods of unrest. They are increasingly adapted to match the seriousness of the events taking place, and the authorities are now able to target those cities or districts they want to disconnect.

For several days in February 2012, censors managed to block access to the secure “https” protocol that encodes Internet communications, thus depriving millions of Iranians from being able to access their Gmail and Yahoo accounts. VPN ports were also blocked, impeding many Iranians who use such tools to circumvent censorship. The Tor network has also been very difficult to access.

Collaboration with Western companies

The repression orchestrated by the Tehran regime relies on the help it gets from foreign companies, particularly Western ones. Despite the sanctions adopted by European and U.S. bodies against Iran, Reporters Without Borders is astonished by the government’s ability to circumvent these measures by means of the “dummy” companies it has created. The rules governing the export of censorship and surveillance equipment need to be revised. Procedures for tracking relevant equipment and software must be reinforced to prevent "banned" products from reaching dictators via third countries or obscure companies.

According to the Bloomberg news agency, Israeli computer security company Allot has for years been selling surveillance software and programs that locate mobile phone and Internet users to the Danish company RanTek, which then resold it to Iran. Irish firm AdaptiveMobile Security has just announced that it is suspending sales of its SMS filtering and blocking systems to Iran. The frequently announced (and always postponed) national Internet

The blocking of the “https” protocol has been interpreted as a dress rehearsal before launching Iran’s national Internet, cut off from the World Wide Web, already announced for the spring of 2011.

However, netizens who seized the occasion to use Iranian email accounts apparently were not impressed with the quality of service. Could the censors still have a lot more to work out?

In actuality, Iranians who cannot, or dare not, circumvent the censors’ filtering system are doomed to use a regime-approved version of the Web, meaning one “cleansed” of any political, social and religious criticism. The national Internet has been a reality for years now, so the announcement of its launching primarily stems from political and nationalist motives.

Since July 2011, Communication and Information Technology Minister Reza Taqipour Anvari has been announcing the launch of the first phase of a “National Internet”, also called “Clean Internet.” During the first phase, the Minister claimed that consumers would initially have access to an 8 Mbps speed broadband connection scheduled to later rise to 20 Mbps. Iran is also expected to launch its own national search engine, “Ya Haq” (“Oh Just One”). The Minister recalled that the project’s aim is to “better manage national emails and information gathering within the country and to improve security.” Surveillance of dissidents’ email will inevitably increase.

Can the country afford such a project? Besides the related development and operation costs, Iran needs to stay connected with the World Wide Web to carry on its commercial and financial transactions. It may be recalled that a five-day cut-off in February and March 2011 had cost Egypt USD 90 million. Is the regime moving toward a two-speed Internet with access to the World Wide Web for the government, religious leaders, Revolutionary Guards and big companies on one side, and the vast majority of the population limited to a censored Intranet on the other?” If such is the case, the authorities would be guilty of grave discrimination against its own people – a genuine digital apartheid.

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