TEHRAN, 30 Aug 2004 (IRIN) - Three websites with links to Iran's reformist parties have been blocked by conservative hardliners and several contributers have been arrested amid increasing crackdowns in Iran.
The Paris-based press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released a statement saying the move was, "A new step in the cowing of the Iranian media." RSF said this move furthers censorship of online Internet activity.
Some six people were arrested by the Tehran prosecutor's office for working for Internet service providers (ISPs) or as webmasters for the targeted sites.
Mohammad Reza Khatami, the secretary-general of the Islamic Iran Participation Front - the main reformist party to which the websites are linked - has complained to the deputy head of the judicial affairs section of Iran's prosecutor's office. He has said that the ISPs are under pressure by morality police to block websites they find unacceptable.
By law, ISPs must block websites deemed anti-Islamic or anti-regime, although many analysts say this latest measure has overstepped the mark. The blocking of the websites are part of increasing social restrictions being imposed by the conservative dominated parliament, who won February's controversial elections after thousands of reformist candidates were barred from standing.
Some analysts believe that the crackdown is a political move by the conservatives and does not herald a new, stricter era."It's simply the conservatives flexing their muscles and letting the reformists know that their days are numbered," one Tehran-based analyst told IRIN.
But RSF fears that the latest restrictions on the Internet will badly affect press freedom. The Internet in Iran is regarded by many as the only forum where Iranians have access to uncensored information and the move to block increasing numbers of websites has been met by dismay by human rights groups and Internet users alike.
In February, the newspaper 'Iran' published a draft of a proposed law on "the punishment of crimes linked to the Internet." It said that anyone found disseminating information that 'poses a threat for the country's internal or external security' should receive a prison sentence of one to three years and up to 15 years if the information is passed to 'foreign states or foreign organisations'. Hefty fines and prison sentences are also proposed for connections to sites of a sexual nature.
The bill states that ISP and cybercafe owners should be responsible for monitoring all content to which they offer access and owners who do not comply risk five years in prison and losing their business. RSF said the law would create "a legislative framework that would severely restrict free expression online."
A host of reformist papers have been shut down in 2004, including dailies Nassim Sabah and Vaghayeh Etefaghieh. The daily reformist 'Jomhouriat' has announced it will cease publication after its managing editor was summonsed to appear in court. Three cybercafes in the southern city of Bushehr have also been shut down, a move strongly denounced by RSF.
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