Breaking the Law to Go Online in Iran -

Breaking the Law to Go Online in Iran - 25/06/2014 Politics

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WASHINGTON — WHEN Anthony Bourdain posted a cryptic message on Facebook at the end of May that he and his television crew would be off the social media grid for the next 10 days because they were “truly going to #PartsUnknown,” his fans around the world were intrigued. Was he shooting his CNN show (titled “Parts Unknown”) in a remote desert or on top of a snowy Himalayan peak?

Ten days later, Mr. Bourdain posted a picture of himself sitting with a small glass of tea at a traditional Iranian teahouse in Isfahan, and it was immediately clear why the famous chef and TV show host had had no other option but to maintain radio silence.

In Iran, the government officially blocks access to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and almost all other social media platforms. Any attempt to bypass this block by using a virtual private network (VPN) connection or other software solutions is illegal. Numerous reports indicate that Iranian authorities restrict access to thousands of American and European websites, particularly those of international news sources, and even throttle down Internet connections to limit the ability of Iranians to surf the rest of the Web.

“Internet speeds are incredibly slow in Iran, which ranked 164 out of 170 countries in a recent study,” says the latest “Freedom on the Net” report from the human-rights organization Freedom House. The report lists Iran as last in the world in terms of Internet freedom. And that was before an Iranian court banned Instagram last month.

This suppressive approach, zealously pursued by hard-liners and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, was ridiculed two weeks ago by none other than the minister of culture, Ali Jannati. Addressing members of Iran’s Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Jannati criticized the practice of blocking websites, social media and popular messaging apps. “In social media and the virtual world, we still do not know if we are supposed to block Viber and WhatsApp or not,” Mr. Jannati said, according to the news site Al-Monitor. “There was a time we had problems with video. There was even a time we had issue with the fax machine,” he said.

“Apparently we have to confront every new phenomenon and after time has passed, then accept it,” Mr. Jannati continued. “We always want to have a 20-year distance with the world. Let’s at least move along with the world.”

Meanwhile, several top Iranian officials enjoy what they deny to their citizens: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani and the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, apparently have accounts on Facebook or Twitter, with Mr. Zarif attracting nearly 900,000 Facebook followers to his page in Farsi.

Mr. Rouhani has staked his reputation on the success of Iran’s talks with the so-called P5-plus-1 countries — the permanent United Nations Security Council members Russia, China, Britain, France and the United States, plus Germany — on a possible nuclear deal before July 20. A deal would ease international sanctions on Iran and allow Western companies to return, giving the struggling Iranian economy a long-needed boost. The reintegration of Iran into the world economy would also require allowing unfiltered access to the Internet and international satellite television broadcasts.
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According to “The Iran Primer,” a website and publication of the United States Institute of Peace, “Iran is one of the most tech-savvy societies in the developing world, with an estimated 28 million Internet users, led by youth,” the site says. “Iran boasts between 60,000 and 110,000 active blogs, one of the highest numbers in the Middle East, led by youth.”

The Iranian authorities admit, reluctantly, that it is almost impossible to rein in Iranians who are eager to know about the outside world and know how to use alternative means to gain access to the web. “Four million Iranians are on Facebook, and we have restricted it,” Mr. Jannati said in a speech in March in Tehran. “The preservation of Islamic values cannot be used as an excuse to stop the growth of something in the country.”

Mr. Jannati also cited the 71 percent of Tehran residents who have satellite dishes and watch foreign television, which is also illegal. “This means that millions in the capital are committing a crime every evening,” he said.

Here at the Voice of America Persian Service, we are familiar with this situation firsthand. Even though all of our satellite TV and radio programs, our website, our social media and our mobile apps are officially banned in Iran, our on-air and online audience numbers have shown steady growth, especially after the start of the P5-plus-1 talks with Iran.

The feedback we get from viewers, listeners and website visitors also confirms strong interest from Iranians to know what is really happening in the country they have been taught to call the “Great Satan” — whether we report on President Obama’s speech at West Point, or a recent visit by American Catholic bishops to Qom to start an interfaith dialogue with top Iranian ayatollahs on the need to restrict nuclear weapons, or Goldman Sachs’s predictions for the Iranian national soccer team at the World Cup.

We have to tweak our web content to accommodate low download speeds in Tehran, Mashhad or Shiraz, and we look for ways to help Iranian students win a cat-and-mouse game with authorities over the use of VPNs and other anti-filtering tools. Our experience confirms what “The Iran Primer” finds: Despite the Iranian authorities’ efforts to shield them from Western influences, “Iran’s young are better educated and more worldly than any previous generation” and “most are exposed to global media, ideas and culture through satellite television and the Internet.”

Before leaving Iran, Mr. Bourdain tweeted: “Never would have guessed that of all countries in world, my crew and I would be treated so well everywhere, by total strangers in #Iran.”

It’s a pity that Iranians weren’t able to read these kind words about their own hospitality on Twitter without breaking their country’s law.

Setareh Derakhshesh is the director of the Voice of America Persian Service.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on June 25, 2014, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: Breaking the Law To Go Online in Iran.
---Top officials enjoy what they deny to their citizens: social media.---

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