Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Iran bloggers test regime's tolerance. Push boundaries of political dissentIran bloggers test regime's tolerance
Push boundaries of political dissent
The Boston Globe
By James F. Smith and Anne Barnard, Globe Staff | December 18, 2006
TEHRAN -- By day, Alireza Samiei covers banking and insurance for an industry newspaper. By night, he writes a daring online blog about Iran's social and political ills.
In a recent blog entry, he described a scene he saw while talking to a greengrocer about soaring prices: A young child was pleading, " 'Mommy, I want watermelon.' The woman, shy and sorrowful, singled out one broken, small watermelon from the spoiled fruit bin and told the grocer, 'Just this one, please.' She put 20 cents on the counter and hurried away."
Samiei, 27, is among the growing ranks of Iranian bloggers who are relentlessly pushing the boundaries of free expression, making Farsi one of the 10 most popular languages for blogs. The bloggers are testing just how much political and social dissent the nation's rulers will tolerate on the Internet.
The authorities are pushing back. They have blocked access to thousands of websites in recent years that are deemed to threaten Iran's Islamic revolution, including the BBC's Farsi-language site. A trial began this month against four bloggers on charges including propaganda against the state. And in October, the government barred high-speed Internet service in private homes.
Especially threatening, it appears, are sites that create online communities that might allow Iranians to assemble virtually. The government banned the hugely popular Orkut site, an online Iranian social club. The latest casualty this month: YouTube.com, the American site for sharing videos online. Click on it in Iran and the screen reports, "Access denied."
The Paris-based rights group Reporters Without Borders includes Iran on its list of 13 countries designated "enemies of the Internet." That organization's website is also blocked in Iran.
The organization said repression of bloggers has eased somewhat in 2006. But in a report in November, the group said Internet filtering has accelerated, with two political sites, tik.ir and meydaan.com, closed down in recent weeks. Both had criticized the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Bloggers agree that they have found some latitude in recent months. Many have developed a feel for the boundaries, and some are trying to stretch them rather than break them.
Farzana Sayid Saidi, a 29-year-old reporter and colleague of Samiei, has two blogs, one political and the other showcasing her poetry. She has been blogging in her spare time for two years. Her first blog was shut down within three days, she said, after she wrote that school officials were providing access to abortions in clinics for young students.
Now she's back at it. She blogged a few days ago that while Ahmadinejad wants people to have more children, his economic policies make it difficult for many families to do so. She said she received some obscene and abusive replies. In a poem on her other blog, she compared Iran's leaders to the pharaohs of Egypt.
She estimates her readers at only in the hundreds, but adds: "We just want to express ourselves. We don't know how many people are reading."
Farzana's colleague Samiei admires her courage.
"Of the things she writes in her blog, only 1 percent would be acceptable in print," Samiei said.
She and hordes of other Iranian bloggers are pushing the envelope of the permissible. Technorati, a Silicon Valley search engine for blogs, said in October that Farsi has moved into the top 10 languages worldwide for bloggers. Most estimates put the number of active blogs in Iran at 70,000 to 100,000, and growing fast.
Iran has a long tradition of controlling the airwaves and the print media, banning papers and jailing journalists who criticize official policies.
But Iran's online activists have proved harder to quash. They have used fast-changing Web addresses, proxy sites, and other technological tricks to get around the restrictions.
"They block us and we evade the blocks," Samiei said. "It goes on every day. They code, we decode."
The Ministry of Information periodically sends lists to Internet service providers saying which keywords to filter out so that users can't get access to websites or blogs that contain them. The government contends that the principal target is pornography and other morally offensive material. The word "sex" is among those blocked.
That has some odd consequences. At one point, an Internet café owner said, the word "hot" was blocked. And that briefly prevented access to Hotmail, the popular e-mail program.
Amirhussein Jaharuti, the manager of a major Internet service provider in Tehran, said the government's restrictions focus on pornography, and he feels that filtering is appropriate.
"This is the demand of Iranian families, that they don't want their children to use these kinds of sites," he said. Asked about the political restrictions, he said: "All governments have ways to control their societies. . . . It's natural that when we see that someone wants to destroy us, we limit them."
Jaharuti said his client base has doubled in the past two years, to nearly 70,000. He provides dial-up and digital-subscriber line service to home and business customers at a cost of 20 to 40 cents an hour, or about $20 per month.
Internet use in Iran has exploded in recent years, with about 7.5 million users in 2005 in a country of nearly 70 million people.
Some journalists say the Internet has become even more vital in Iran as the government has suppressed other, more easily controllable forms of expression. Several opposition newspapers have been shut down since September, including the prominent paper Shargh.
The editor, Mohamed Atrianfar, said in an interview that the closure of Shargh and other publications and renewed pressure on critical websites reflects the government's concern that "the more challenges we have, the more agile and fresh the society becomes."
"All the hard-liners have mustered all their strength to fight this war. I am proud that we have invoked this reaction in them," he added.
Despite its closure, Shargh has maintained a website to continue coverage of elections last week.
Atrianfar estimated that about 70 to 80 Iranian journalists have their own blogs.
"Websites and blogs have real impact," he said. "They have been very powerful in forming a word-of-mouth culture, especially for those between 17 and 35."
An Internet café owner in central Tehran who gave only his first name, Shariar, said the filtering of keywords rather than individual sites often blocks legitimate websites that people need for academic research. He also said limits on credit cards resulting from US financial sanctions against Iran have all but eliminated e-commerce on Iran's Internet, a major obstacle to economic growth.
Shariar said that while the government contends it is aiming its restrictions at pornography, "I think they are worried about politics. . . . I think they fear everything. They don't want people to make connections overseas. They are worried about information."
The authorities also close Western media sites temporarily. Both The New York Times and Los Angeles Times sites were blocked briefly this month.
A 22-year-old university student, Morteza Yeganeh, said the state-owned broadcasters and newspapers "brainwash people, so we need to find ways to educate ourselves."
But he said the filtering of sites is effective because "even though people can get around the filters, it is difficult and time-consuming and people give up."
Most Iranian blogs are apolitical, and government members -- including Ahmadinejad himself -- have their own blogs to convey their views. But those with blogs that challenge the government know they are taking a risk.
Niloufar Taslim, 24, said that three years ago, she was one of Iran's first bloggers, writing about social and political problems. But she started receiving e-mails signed by a group calling itself the Army of God, listing her name, telephone number, and address and threatening to kill her.
She shut down that site, but now has two new blogs. One talks about social problems without crossing what she also considers political red lines: transportation and environmental problems.
Another blog features her poems. One laments that she has lost her voice, that in "a situation without possibilities" her hands are "in pain because they cannot write."