Rouhani Cabinet Sends Mixed Messages About Facebook and Twitter
Just a few hours after the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported that Iran’s Minister of Communications Mahmoud Vaezi told reporters today that Facebook and Twitter will remain blocked in Iran, his ministry released an official statement saying that the unblocking of social networks is still under review and no final decisions have been made. The sudden change in tone and the conflicting statements are representative of the mixed messages the Rouhani cabinet has been sending about the utilization of social media and the Internet as a whole.
Following the disputed 2009 presidential election and the subsequent public protests, thousands of Iranian users used Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to post photographs, videos, and news of their protests and the casualties protesters sustained when they faced the Iranian government’s violent crackdown on the unarmed and peaceful demonstrators, attracting international attention and support for their protest movement. In addition to its usual heavy censorship of the Internet, the Iranian government immediately embarked on an even more rigorous censorship regimen. Authorities severely reduced Internet access speeds, making transmissions of large files nearly impossible, and blocked both Facebook and Twitter.
Over the past four years, avid Facebook users in Iran have used special software in order to gain access to the blocked social networking site. While government censors hacked Iranian citizens’ email accounts and read emails and chat sessions of journalists and activists, using these as evidence for the security charges they applied to a large group of Iranians, there were even cases where people were prosecuted for “propaganda against the regime and insulting officials on Facebook.” The Sirjan General and Revolutionary Courts Prosecutor told Fars News Agency last year, “Publishing photographs without the Islamic covering (hejab) in virtual space was also a crime.” He also told Fars that prior to those most recent arrests, “We had some arrests in this area which led to rulings, and the culprits were sentenced to prison terms.”
When President Hassan Rouhani said on the campaign trail, “I emphasize, I emphasize on ending the country’s security atmosphere,” there was great hope and expectation that Internet freedom would be one of his priorities.
The immediate and effective use of Facebook by several Rouhani cabinet members, most notably his Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, came as a surprise to most Iranians. In just a few weeks, Mohammad Javad Zarif has gained 60,000 fans and followers on his popular Facebook page, where he has written amicably and openly about his thoughts and plans for bringing Iran out of isolation and reducing tension with the rest of the world. Iranians worldwide are closely following Mohammad Javad Zarif’s posts on Facebook, hoping that the Foreign Minister’s use of what remains illegal for others may lead to all Iranians having access to Facebook. On September 16, during the recent UN General Assembly trip of Rouhani and his cabinet, access to Facebook and Twitter and many other sites was made possible for all Iranian users nationwide, though authorities later claimed this had been caused by a technical glitch. Government authorities resumed the heavy blocking the next day.
Similarly, Rouhani himself drew international attention to his use of Twitter. In September, a tweet from an account in Rouhani’s name became top news. In the tweet, Rouhani wished Jews a Happy Jewish New year, surprising the world with words and a tone entirely different from his predecessor’s. During his New York trip, Rouhani told Christiane Amanpour, “There are large social networks at a global level around today, and I believe that all human beings have a right, and all nations have a right, to use them.”
Last week, Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s Chairman, asked Rouhani on Twitter, “Are citizens of Iran able to read your tweets?” In reply Rouhani tweeted, “Evening, @Jack. As I told @camanpour, my efforts geared 2 ensure my ppl’ll comfortably b able 2 access all info globally as is their #right.” Many believe Rouhani wants to make good on his promises, but that he faces serious opposition and challenges at home, contributing to the confused official messages of access and blocking. In addition to those who have “security concerns” in allowing Iranians inside Iran access to news and information generated in an increasingly large number of dissident Persian-language media, and who fear a repeat of the 1988 flow of information and images from Iran, there are also conservative clerics and officials, including Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who fundamentally distrust and dissuade access to Western technology and content, calling it corruptive and immoral.
The press statement issued by Vaezi’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology further obfuscates Iran’s Internet policy. “According to the Public Relations and Information Center of the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, such topics [as unblocking Facebook] are under review in a work group outside of the Ministry of Communications, and as soon as results of the reviews and the decisions made there are received, the public will be officially notified,” the statement reads.