As usual, Iranian netizens have faced many challenges in 2012. They have seen online repression grow and become more institutionalized with the launch of an official cyber police force. In turn, they have defied the Islamic regime in various ways throughout the year, such as by filming streets protests, reporting on the failures of government-run institutions, and campaigning for political prisoners and environmental issues.
Below are some of the most memorable moments from the Iranian cyber world in 2012. The regime continued its repressive and merciless tactics against bloggers and netizens all year. It began with the repression of bloggers and ended the year by killing one of them.
Bloggers in Chains
There are many brave cyber activists in Iran, but there is one name that shines brighter than others and marked 2012: Sattar Beheshti, 35, was a blogger from Robat-Karim, south-west of Tehran, who was arrested for criticizing the government in October and tortured to death in Evin prison.
In January, we learned that a 50-year old Iranian blogger, Mohammad Reza Pour Shajari (aka Seyamek Meher), was charged with “insulting the Prophet of Islam” and “enmity with God” or “waging war against God”, charges that could carry the death penalty in Iran. His trial on December 21, 2011 lasted only 15 minutes.
According to Reporters Without Borders, 18 netizens are still imprisoned in Iran and it seems no virtual activity is safe in the country as cyber police “proudly” announced several times that it arrested various Facebook administrators. Even one blogger favorable to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faced a jail sentence, and several others were censored as rivalries between governing factions has grown.
Bloggers, like millions of Iranians, celebrated when Asghar Farhadi's feature film “A Separation” won Iran's first Oscar award. Netizens participated in an outpouring of celebration, and some fans also created posters for “A Separation” for different tastes. They also criticized pro-regime Fars News when it embellished on Farhadi's Oscar acceptance speech and changed his words to: “Iranian people respect all cultures despite the western hostility with Iranian nuclear program.”
Israel-Iran Virtual love affair
Israelis and Iranians exchanging messages of love sounds stranger than fiction in these tense years, when the Iranian and Israeli governments threaten each other with military might. An Israeli Facebook campaign that said “We will never bomb your country. We love you” to Iranians, received an answer from Iranians in the form a corresponding Facebook campaign that said to Israelis, “We are your friends.”
Strike in Tehran
Demonstrations and strikes were rare in 2012 but when they happened, cyber activists were there to report. Shopkeepers went on strike at the Bazaar in Tehran in early October as Iran's financial situation deteriorated due to international sanctions. Protesters clashed with security forces in Istanbul Square in Tehran and chanted “Down with Syria!”. This slogan was most likely inspired by the fact that many Iranians blame the Iranian government for (allegedly) supporting the Syrian regime financially at a moment when their own country is in need of cash.
Supporting Political Prisoners
Bloggers campaigned and supported several political prisoners including Nasrin Sotoudeh, jailed human rights activist when she went on hunger strike. Finally after 49 days of hunger strike, the government lifted a travel ban imposed on Sotoudeh's teenage daughter.
Islamic State continues its “crusade” to control more and more the Iranian internet world. On Sunday, September 23, 2012, the regime surprised many by filtering Google and Gmail for a short period of time. Regime called its decision based on a request by the public to oppose an anti-Islam film on YouTube.
Many interpret this filtering as another step towards controlling the internet or launching “clean internet” as was promised by Iranian officials earlier in 2012.
Having the infrastructure for a skeleton Iran-only Internet in place would give the Iranian government greater power to shut off access to the Internet at times of civil unrest.
Iranian netizens did not focus only on political issues but also covered several environmental and humanitarian issues:
Saving a Lake – On May 21, 2012, once again people in Urmia and several other cities in the Azerbaijan region of Iran called on the government to save the dying Lake Urmia, one of the world's largest salt water lakes.
Blood Donations – Two powerful earthquakes hit the northwest region in Iran, East Azarbaijan province on August 11, killing 250 people and injuring around 1,800. The earthquakes measured 6.4 and 6.3 in magnitude, leaving a trail of destruction and suffering. Iranians flocked to the Internet to mourn the victims and to appeal for blood donations and help.
Empty Pockets for Healthcare – Arseh Sevom reported on the immediate results of unprecedented sanctions on the lives of millions of patients in Iran. “There is not a single day when we do not hear a new story about medicine shortages in Iran and how it adversely affects Iranians, especially those requiring uninterrupted medication,” writes the human rights organisation.
We approach 2013 as a challenging moment for all Iranians with an upcoming presidential election and growing despair due to sanctions. Cyber activists have played a crucial role in reporting and commenting, transcending both political correctness and repression.