TORONTO, Canada — Last week, a court in Iran’s Kerman province sentenced seven staff members from a popular technology and gadgets site, Narenji, to a very ambiguous 1 to 11 years in jail.
The seven technology bloggers who wrote about tech news and product reviews had been arrested by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in a round up last December. After spending six months in jail, the bloggers were tried and issued what appears to be a “badavi” verdict, where those prosecuted can appeal the decision in 20 days.
It is unknown what each sentencing is for each blogger, or if those others who had been arrested with the seven but were later released will also serve jail time.
This and other recent arrests of bloggers and netizens has undercut the message of a more open society and internet that dominated western media coverage of Hassan Rouhani’s campaign for president.
Many Iranian voters were seduced by Hassan Rouhani’s campaign narrative. His victory kindled hope in the hearts of many young Iranians for a brighter future and easier access to the internet — an important factor in a nation with one of the highest internet penetration rates in the region.
Unfortunately, these hopes are beginning to wane. Almost a year into Rouhani’s presidency, technical censorship persists as usual and online writers and activists continue to face persecution and jail. Internet policy presents a challenge for the office of the president, as with any reform in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where institutions outside of the control of the elected government often wield the most power and influence on policies.
Still, Rouhani criticized the state of Iran’s internet throughout his campaign, noting in June of 2013: “We are living in a world in which limiting information is impossible. Youth are faced with bombardment of information and we must prepare to handle it.”
His statements about his hope that all Iranians can access websites such as Facebook and Twitter were complemented by his acknowledgement during a conference on Information and Communication Technologies of the importance of having Iranians as members of social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Google applications during.
But the internet, sadly, is monitored by an institution that operates outside his jurisdiction and falls to the discretion of the judiciary and sometimes the Supreme Leader.
Rouhani’s supporters claim that the judiciary acts independently from Iran’s government. Unfortunately, former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used the same argument when he was asked about jailed political prisoners.
Contrary to Ahmadinejad however, Rouhani has been involved in battles over filtered websites.
This was best illustrated when Rouhani had to veto the decision to block WhatsApp by the Committee Charged with Determining Offensive Content (CCDOC), under the control of the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC), and influence from the independent judiciary — both institutions accountable only to the Supreme Leader.
While the situation has not come to a decisive conclusion, WhatsApp has yet to be filtered inside Iran, but the blocked status of both WhatsApp and Instagram are currently under review by the CCDOC and the judiciary.
But those following internet policy news have increasingly lost hope that positive change is in the future.
Some wonder what explains the tightening controls over Iran’s cyberspace, given Rouhani’s liberal internet ethos.
Here it is: Cyberspace has always posed one of the hardest challenges to the control of the Islamic Republic over its population.
And today it arguably has become the biggest area of struggle between Rouhani and the powerful institutions outside of his control that hold stake in the situation.
There are currently three trends we can observe in Iran’s virtual world.
Mastering forbidden social media
Most of the 2013 presidential candidates used social media tools that are blocked by the Iranian government to publicize their campaigns — an activity that was pre-dated by the Supreme Leader, who has been on Twitter since 2009.
Today, Rouhani and several of his ministers, particularly Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, are quickly mastering the art of social media. Zarif has become a de facto Facebook “rock star,” with even his most quotidian of posts garnering thousands of likes and comments. The Rouhani Twitter account has become a platform for the administration’s policies.
Use of the internet by the Iranian government is welcomed by many as a bridge between Iranian authorities and citizens. But access to international social media websites comes only through circumvention tools that are illegal in Iran.
A War of Words
Rouhani has continually expressed concern about the state of Iran's internet and has criticized filtering on several occasions. But his strong words on the country’s internet conditions are often followed by conservative counter pressures that come in the form of remarks by the conservative press, or decisions made in government bodies outside of Rouhani’s control.
This war of words is seen by some as a real conflict between different factions within the regime — a clash between pragmatists and conservatives, or the moderates against the hardliners.
Last month, following the arrest of the six young stars of a viral YouTube video featuring Pharrel Williams’ song “Happy,” the official Rouhani account tweeted a quote from his 2013 election campaign: “#Happiness is our people's right. We shouldn't be too hard on behaviors caused by joy.”
The director of the video, Sassan Soleimani, was also associated with Hassan Rouhani’s 2013 Presidential Campaign and is rumored to have chosen his purple campaign colors.
Some say this is a smoke-in-mirrors approach, designed to convince the Iranian people that the Rouhani administration is trying to implement change; that Rouhani is the good cop pushing back against the bad cop hardliners. Still, both sides are very much products of the system of the Islamic Republic.
In this scenario, Rouhani is often seen as the valiant defender of internet freedom against the old clerical ranks. But is this really true?
Consider the CCDOC — the body that recently clashed with Rouhani. They are the centralized censorship body affiliated with the Ministry of Justice, which determines which websites are filtered. Six out of the thirteen members of the committee are appointed by Rouhani’s office, including representatives of the Ministry of ICT, Culture and Islamic Guidance, Justice, Science and Education.
Is the Rouhani government ineffectual against Iran’s hardline elements, or just powerless within the odds of six against seven?
The reality is: If you are using the Internet in Iran to exercise your right to free expression or access to information, the probability that you will go to jail today is no different than it was before the Rouhani administration.
Stories about the increasing number of popular websites and applications entering the ranks of blocked content, and entering into popular discourse as dangerous tools against national security, have increased.
The continuous arrests and detentions of netizens has also heightened. Following the arrest of the 16 cyber activists and tech journalists of Narenji in December, eight individuals were arrested in May and sentenced to a combined 128 years in prison for comments and views they posted on Facebook that were deemed insulting the Islamic Republic and the Supreme Leader.
The past few weeks have seen the struggle for internet freedom in Iran play out in a number of different ways, and no one is quite sure if Rouhani’s administration is unable to make a change or simply ineffective in the face of exterior obstacles.
For now it seems netizens are vacillating between holding out hope for progress under Rouhani and disillusionment with the status quo.
A version of this report first appeared on Global Voices, Advocacy.
Mahsa Alimardani is a Iranian-Canadian Internet researcher. Her focus is on the intersection of technology and human rights, especially as it pertains to freedom of expression and access to information inside Iran.
Fred Petrossian is Online Editor in Chief of Radio Farda. He co-edited and co wrote a book on Iranian protest movement based on citizen media (Hope, Votes and Bullets, 2010). He is co-founder of award winning March 18 Movement to raise awareness about bloggers’ safety around the world. Petrossian has been involved with leading digital projects such as Harvard Global Voices. He has been an international speaker on civil society and citizen media in media and academic centers such as Yale University.
This piece is part of a new GlobalPost Special Reports/Commentary initiative supported by the Ford Foundation called "VOICES." The mission of VOICES is to present the ideas and opinions of those who are less frequently heard in the media, including women, people of color, sexual minorities, citizens of the developing world and young people. These voices will consistently discuss topics important to GlobalPost Special Reports including human rights, religious issues, global health, economic inequality and democracies in transition.