Iran: State Reaps Real Dividends of Double-edged Persecution

George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs, along with the Broadcasting Board of Governors, are sponsoring a half-day conference on Monday (April 12) in Washington DC entitled “Iran: Opportunities and Challenges for Citizen Engagement.” Ivan Sigal, Executive Director of Global Voices Online, will take part in the event as a moderator. I was asked to participate by writing a couple of commentaries/posts on the conference topic.

From my observations and experience, citizen media and social networking in Iran has probably been, for the past few years, the only efficient means for Iranians to express their ideas, share original stories on different issues, communicate with each other and the outside world and even, in some cases, organize demonstrations.

There is no doubt that citizens protesting the results of the June presidential election have made efficient use of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogs to ‘immortalize’ their movement and to broadcast evidence of the violence committed against people by the security forces. However, the cornerstone of this movement is not technology – it’s the people.

This said, I should add that Iranian netizens are facing enormous pressure and have been the victims of the Islamic Republic’s persecution; and in some cases, they have been largely misunderstood by Western media.

Security Issues: Virtual Writers, Real Victims

For years, Iranian netizens have faced filtering, hacking and persecution. In recent months, after the presidential election, the persecution reached a new scale as did its consequences:

Prison: Dozens of bloggers were among the several hundreds of Iranian journalists, political and civil society activists who were arrested after the 12th of June election. Some who got released, such as Mohmmad Ali Abtahi, former reformist vice president and a very active blogger, no longer dare to criticize the Iranian government. Who would be so bold after months of being persecuted? Not many, of course.

Cyber Attacks: The Iranian State or its supporters have multiplied initiatives and projects to rule the virtual world, not by words but by force.

The Iranian Cyber Army is just one example of several militant Islamic initiatives that have only become more fervent since the elections in June 2009. This hacker group is perhaps the strongest Iranian, or Iran-related, militant Islamist project on the Internet. Twitter, Radio Zamaneh, Green Movement sites such as Jaras and Kalameh were among the victims of this cyber army. It has announced that it will hack and reveal information which could jeopardize the activists behind those sites.

The organized-crime-fighting unit of the IRGC, launched a website named ‘Gerdab’ (meaning ‘vortex’), where news and photos of arrested people is published. During the post-election protests in 2009, Gerdab published photos of protesters, and asked the Iranian public to help identify them. This site is now hunting bloggers too.

An atmosphere of fear has been created. Khyaboon, an underground Internet newspaper, has no site or blog, due to security reasons, and just sends its issue to email boxes.

In other words, the Islamic Republic reaped the dividends of persecution. It silenced many bloggers, forced them into exile or silences them altogether.

Curb your Enthusiasm

Iranians used Facebook, the blogosphere, Twitter and YouTube to reach the outside world, reflecting the Iranian people’s image and convey the message of leading politicians to thousands of people. These virtual platforms have provided useful tools to dynamise slogans, images and dates of demonstrations.

Iranian citizen media is the extension of real people’s activities. In recent months and after February 11, which is the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, when the Iranian State ‘stole’ the show from the Iranian opposition, citizen media enthusiasm like the real-world protestor’s dynamism, has been curbed.

A continuing lack of strategy in Tehran and other battleground cities may push netizens out of the virtual world – at least until a new wave of protest movements.

We had a peak into the creativity of Iranian online activists between June and February, a time when people were enthusiastic and believed in the possibility of victory in the near future.

Despite this, I should add that I believe that Iranian youth is and remains creative. And so is their social networking, but they can not make a miracle happen. Who can?

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