ANKARA, 5 Aug 2004 (IRIN) - The media watchdog body Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has voiced concern at the growing efforts of the Iranian authorities to censor online freedom of expression, including the preparation of a draft law that would create a legal framework to crack down on Internet usage. RSF has also called for the release of Mojtaba Lotfi, a cyber-dissident theology student.
"Since the elections [last February] the authorities have tried to tighten control over the Internet, because they realise the power it has for the opposition," Julien Pain, responsible for the RSF's Internet freedom desk, told IRIN from Paris on Thursday, noting that the Iranian government was blacklisting information and political websites.
However, Pain stressed that, despite the government's crackdown, Iranian Internet users were willing to express themselves online, even if they risked imprisonment and torture, "because people really believe in politics in Iran".
The watchdog organisation called for the release of Mojtaba Lotfi, a theologian and former journalist with the reformist daily newspaper Khordad, which was closed in 2000. Lotfi was imprisoned in May in the holy city of Qom, 120 km south of the capital Tehran.
He was tried in July on charges of spying and publishing false information after he posted an article entitled "Respect for human rights in cases involving the clergy" on www.naqshineh.com, a website also subject to judicial proceedings over some of its articles on the recent legislative elections, according to RSF.
"You cannot jail someone just because he expressed his political ideas on the Internet," Pain said, explaining that this case was very interesting, given that the authorities targeted somebody from "the inside", as Lotfi was a theology student in one of the most famous schools and was very close to Iranian reformists.
After analysing the draft of the proposed law "on the punishment of crimes linked to the Internet", published in February in the Iranian media, RSF says that it would create a legal framework to legitimise the oppression of online freedom of expression.
"If the law is approved they can even tell the international community that all their actions [to restrict free expression online] are legal," the RSF official said, noting that the law would increase pressure on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Internet users. "The law would make it easier to censor the Internet and imprison people."
The draft law proposes prison sentences of up to three years for disseminating "information that poses a threat for the country's internal or external security" and from five to 15 years if the information is passed to "foreign states or foreign organisations", an RSF statement noted.
Furthermore, it would give the police the power to search Internet users' homes or the premises of any legal entity involved in Internet activity, without a judge's authorisation.
According to the draft, the new legislation should conform to international norms and conventions concerning the Internet, but adds that "foreign laws will not apply if they are contrary to sharia [Islamic law] or Iranian law, or if they run counter to the country's security and interests," RSF said.
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