Monday, April 20, 2009

Bloggers are taking on Iran’s mullahs and winning. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, bloggers are on the front line of the struggle for freedom. Today, there are about 80,000 bloggers in Iran living under constant threat of surveillance, harassment and imprisonment. One such blogger, Mojtaba Saminejad, 28, was arrested and tortured along with 30 others in 2004. He spent three months in solitary confinement in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison. Two weeks after he was freed, he was arrested again for complaining on his blog about the mistreatment he had endured. He was held for 21 months on the charge of showing disrespect to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

We recently conducted an exclusive interview with Mr. Saminejad, translated by Ladan Yazdian. He told us Iranian blog sites have proliferated as a direct consequence of the regime’s restrictions on other forms of public expression. “In Iran, people need to get a permit to publish any piece of information, including a book, an article or a song,” he told us. “Therefore, with the government’s total control over people’s minds, it is difficult to bypass the government’s numerous filters, and even more difficult to access information. Such boundaries do not exist in the blogosphere.” He said blogs are “an ideal forum to express private thoughts” in a county where privacy is increasingly scarce.

The Iranian blogosphere took off in 2001 and has since faced a continually escalating war with the regime. “Monitoring all the blogs is not possible,” Mr. Saminejad said, “so the government shows its frustration by imposing pressure and intimidation.” Tehran began filtering Web sites, and bloggers responded with filtering countermeasures. Then bloggers were arrested, “frequently jailed for ‘un-Islamic’ content, which is against the national security interests of the country,” so the opposition began to form closer, more cooperative support networks and continued to post on the arrested bloggers’ sites. The regime responded by sponsoring pro-regime bloggers and held a “Festival of Web Logs and Web Sites of the Islamic Revolution.”

The regime also sanctioned hacker groups, such as the Hadid Hacking Team and IHS (Iran Hackers Sabotage), which launched attacks on dissident blog sites and Western, frequently Israeli, targets. In response, dissidents moved to alternate platforms, utilized e-mail and RSS distribution, stood up mirror sites and joined invitation-only online communities such as Google’s Orkut.

In 2006, the regime proposed a national Internet structure that would host all government and nongovernment sites inside Iran and cut out Western and especially U.S. servers. In 2008, the regime reached the pinnacle of blogger oppression with a draft law that imposes the death penalty for facad - undermining the authority or stability of the state - which is a dangerously vague and sufficiently elastic charge that could slip any blogger’s head into the noose. “Under this law,” Mr. Saminejad told us, “any freedom-seeking blogger can face the death penalty for promoting illegal activities.”

Some never even get their day in a kangaroo court. Twenty-five-year-old Omid-Reza Mirsayafi died in Evin Prison in March under mysterious circumstances. The next day the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps was unleashed on bloggers and made mass arrests. Tehran claimed “these detainees are part of organized networks who are working on evil projects that insult the holy Koran, spread pornographic material and advertise the ‘sale’ of Iranian girls.”

The future is difficult for Iranian bloggers like Mr. Saminejad, but he and his compatriots see no alternative but to continue their dangerous activities. There is no other alternative. As Mr. Saminejad says, the blogosphere is “the main outlet to receive the news and analysis from Iran.” And so long as their sites survive, the world will know freedom’s flame still burns in Iran.

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