- The Washington Times - Monday, March 23, 2009

Iranian blogger Omidreza Mirsayafi died March 18 under mysterious circumstances in Tehran‘s notorious Evin prison. The official word is suicide, but close observers strongly suspect foul play.

Mirsayafi ran a cultural blog called Rooz Negar, but in totalitarian states the cultural is the political, and a revolutionary court gave Mirsayafi two years in prison for “insulting” the Islamic Republic’s leaders, and tacked on an additional six months for “publicity against the government.” Mohamed Abdel Dayem of the Committee to Protect Journalists told The Washington Times that this case illustrates how Iran “actively violates the rights of journalists and bloggers.” His organization is calling for a full and transparent investigation into how Mirsayafi died, but Iran is not known for admitting its crimes against humanity.

American bloggers can snark with impunity, but in many countries blogging is hazardous to your health. Take Syria, which Reporters Without Borders recently named an “enemy of the Internet” along with Iran and 10 other countries.

Syrian blogger Tariq Biasi was arrested in June 2007 by Syrian military intelligence for “undermining national sentiment” and “publishing false information.” His crime: a six-word comment he made on the site “I am a Muslim.” For this Biasi was sentenced to three years. We’ve heard of being paid by the word but this is ridiculous.

The expression “morality police” is a cliché in this country but a sad fact of life elsewhere. American freelance journalist Roxana Saberi, a native of Fargo and former Miss North Dakota, is being held incommunicado in Iran under a secret arrest order, though her father says the pretext was that she bought a bottle of wine. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has registered an official protest and Tehran said she would be released “soon.”

But most women journalists in Iranian prisons can’t count on high level intervention. Four Iranian “cyber-feminists” recently appeared before a revolutionary tribunal for writing essays in the blog sites “Women’s City” and “Change for Equality.” They are charged with, among other things, “disrupting public opinion” which presumably is what blogging is all about. One of the activists, Maryam Hosseinkhah, wrote from her cell in Evin prison that she was “one of hundreds of women who for years are entangled in the tall walls of Evin and have no one to help. Neither the law helps them, nor family, nor any one else. The true definition of helplessness can be learned here, in the eyes of these inmates.”

To Americans, the Internet is a critical source for information and a no-holds-barred arena of free expression. But as these and numerous other cases demonstrate, in some countries the Internet has become the front line in the struggle for liberty, the sole manifestation of free media in parts of the world in which newspapers exist only to serve as transmission belts for the propaganda of the ruling elite. These oppressive regimes respond by shutting down web sites, blocking Internet access, and imprisoning, torturing and sometimes killing bloggers. Iran is about to pass a law imposing capital punishment on blogs that promote “corruption, prostitution and apostasy,” ill-defined and highly elastic concepts that could place a death sentence on all of Iran’s voices for change. Armed with these powers, Tehran will no longer have to cover up murdering courageous Iranian bloggers with absurd tales of accidental death or suicide.

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