Eight Netizens Arrested While Iran Contemplates Unblocking Facebook and Twitter
According to a Kerman Province Judiciary statement, the Prosecutor for the General and Revolutionary Courts of Rafsanjan said yesterday that eight individuals have been arrested recently for publishing “blasphemous content in cyberspace.”
“As these actions had created public dissatisfaction and anxiety, pursuit of the issue was placed on the agenda and through efforts and information surveillance by the Unknown Soldiers of Imam Zaman [(referring to Intelligence Ministry forces)], eight individuals were identified and arrested in this respect,” said Hossein Raeesi Nejad, adding that “after the preliminary investigation stages, this group was transferred to prison on temporary detention orders.”
“Creating public anxiety” is a security charge used to prosecute hundreds of Iranian journalists, bloggers, filmmakers, and activists. The announcement about these new arrests happens amidst new-found hope among Iranian Internet users about government leniency towards use of social networks such as Facebook.
Hassan Rouhani and senior members of his cabinet have all been using Facebook and Twitter to announce their programs and expressing their viewpoints, and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently used YouTube for international diplomacy leading up to the nuclear deal in Geneva this past weekend. For the general user population in Iran, however, access to these social networks continues to be blocked.
Ali Jannati, Iran’s Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, recently told reporters that he is a Facebook user himself and that he does not believe that using the medium should be construed as a “criminal” act.
With 725,000 followers, Javad Zarif is one of the most popular Iranians on Facebook. His Facebook status updates are diary-style updates using warm and clear language to explain the Iranian government’s viewpoints in Persian and sometimes English. Javad Zarif’s use of Facebook is a very important component of what has come to be known as the Rouhani government’s “Charm Offensive.”
The conservative Iranian leadership, officials, and high-ranking clerics, however, continue to view the Internet as a major threat, describing it as a menace to moral values. During a recent speech, Iran’s Supreme Leader referred to Twitter as “a social network that could be used as an agent of sedition and seditionists” during the 2009 post-election protests, and added that the US “had hoped to overthrow the Islamic Republic regime with this media work and the likes of Facebook and Twitter networks.”
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has maintained an active presence on Twitter, and his October 1 exchange with Jack Dorsey, a co-founder of Twitter, gained international attention. Dorsey asked Rouhani: “@HassanRouhani Good evening, President. Are citizens of Iran able to read your tweets?” Rouhani replied, “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.” Dorsey ended the exchange by saying, “@HassanRouhani thank you. Please let us know how we can help to make it a reality.”
Meanwhile, in Iran, today a member of the Iranian Parliament’s Cultural Commission announced that the Commission’s members had a meeting with certain Grand Ayatollahs in the holy city of Qom, where the high-ranking clerics shared their concerns about a potential unblocking of Facebook and a discontinuation of book censorship. Nasrollah Pejmanfar told ISNA that the Grand Ayatollahs shared their concerns about “certain officials’ statements about unblocking Facebook.” “Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi expressed dismay at statements made by officials about the unblocking of Facebook, and warned that unblocking Facebook would have consequences for the country, especially in the cultural aspect,” said Pejmanfar.