History Repeats: Iranian Censorship Tightens Once Again

An Iranian woman holds a poster supporting presidential candidate Mohsen Rezaie in Tehran. PHOTO: Reuters.
Thursday, June 13, 2013

By Spencer Livingstone

On June 12, 2009, incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won his second term in what appeared to be a landslide victory over opponent Mir-Hossein Mousavi in Iran’s presidential elections. With 62.6 percent of the vote, Ahmadinejad easily triumphed over Mousavi’s 33.8 percent. So why then, immediately following the release of the results, did tens of thousands of Iranians take to the streets of Tehran to protest Ahmadinejad’s re-election? The wide margin of Ahmadinejad’s victory defied the expectations of a close race that had preceded the official vote. Although no concrete evidence could be found to confirm government interference with the results, Mousavi declared himself the victim of “fraud” and "manipulation", a complaint that drew agreement from the other opposition candidates. Rallies continued for months following the election, calling for President Ahmadinejad’s removal from office. Although the Green Revolution protests – the popular name for the 2009 demonstrations in reference to Mousavi’s campaign colour – were relatively peaceful, the Iranian government cracked down severely on dissidents. Riot squads attacked and beat protesters, who demanded that, in accordance with democracy, the president elect represent the will of the majority. At least 30 Iranians were killed, and over 2500 protesters were imprisoned .

In an attempt to quell the growing size of the rallies, the Iranian government sought to end the exchange of information between people. Authorities blocked cell phone transmissions, and heavily intensified their efforts to inhibit public Internet access, slowing Internet speed to less than ten percent of its normal rate and blocking social networks and oppositionist websites altogether. The government also banned public protests and rallies, and made it illegal to outwardly express dissatisfaction with the results of the election. Although Ahmadinejad’s regime was ultimately unable to completely disable communications between people, the fact remains that the Iranian government explicitly tried to eliminate public access to media that would allow the people to unite or express their opposition to the wrongfully claimed presidency.

Four years later, little has changed. The upcoming election scheduled for this Friday, June 14, brings with it levels of public censorship similar to those experienced in the era of the Green Revolution. Public access to information continues to be heavily censored in Iran, an effort led by the Supreme Council of Virtual Space. Created in 2012, the Council has the authority to block text messages and websites that contain targeted words, typically those referencing the names or slogans of certain political candidates. Certain news sites have been taken offline entirely as the election approaches. Thousands of websites are blocked in Iran, including social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, any websites considered to be un-Islamic or politically dissenting, and Internet access slows to approximately five percent of its already sluggish speed while accessing email.

"Freedom to the Internet is a human right, outlined by the UN," says CJFE Board Member Morteza Abdolalian, who currently runs Iran Watch Canada - a daily blog that reports on political issues in Iran. “But in Iran there are obstacles to accessing information. The regime is undemocratic in its entirety.”

To circumvent these restrictions, many people have set up virtual private networks (VPNs) which allow users to hide their IP address and location so that it appears to be a computer operating outside of Iran. Nevertheless, the Council has recently gained control over VPNs , and has shut them down periodically; on the eve of the announcement of the final candidate list for the upcoming election, all VPNs were shut down, likely out of the government’s fear of the public revolting as it did four years ago.

This censorship body of immense influence was created, not by the order of the president, but by Iran’s Supreme Leader, who supersedes the president’s power. Thus, the Council responds directly to the will of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who ultimately decides what can be accessed and what must be blocked. So as candidates campaign vigourously for public appeal, Ayatollah Khamenei has the power to allow those that he favours to gain a wider audience than those that he disapproves of.

Widely recognized as Ayatollah Khamenei’s favoured candidate, Saeed Jalili has the best and most comprehensive social media network, including podcasts, Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ accounts, while other candidates experience tremendous resistance to their Internet networking. Before he was disqualified from his candidacy, Esfaniar Rahim Mashaei had been targeted by the Supreme Council of Virtual Space; they blocked any message or website that used either his name or his slogan, "Spring is arriving" because in 2009 Mashaei was dismissed from his role as First Vice President of Iran by Ayatollah Khamenei for holding dissenting views.

"For free and fair elections, it is necessary for the public to have complete and equal access to information on all candidates," says Abdolalian. "This does not happen in Iran, so it is hard for the Iranian people to make an informed choice." Ayatollah Khamenei possesses the power, by limiting and deciding what information reaches the public through the internet and other mediums, to heavily influence the outcome of the election; by no means do the results of the election rest solely within the hands of the people.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontier.” There are at least 40 journalists currently imprisoned in Iran for their writing – the second highest amount in the world – and the Iranian government continues to take drastic measures towards preventing necessary information regarding the election from reaching the very people who will be casting the votes. With such rampant censorship and explicit limitation throughout Iran at the hands of Ayatollah Khamenei and the Supreme Council of Virtual Space – which Abdolalian refers to as “watch dogs” who create a climate of fear – the Iranian people do not have access to information that is crucial to the voting process, nor do they have the freedom to express their opinions wherever they differ from those held by the regime.

Even if the results of tomorrow’s election appear uncorrupted by the government, the outcome will still be far from a free and democratic representation of the will of the Iranian people.