By Amir Mansouri, Tehran (Source: Mianeh)
Transcript (audio file available for download or play on Mianeh's web site):
In November, the Iranian authorities placed the video-sharing website YouTube on the list of officially blocked sites, in a bid to stop people looking at it or worse still, uploading their own images.
Despite this, it seems likely that Iranians will try to find their way round the obstructions as YouTube has become hugely popular in the country. Given that television and radio are run by the government and the few foreign media organisations allowed to film inside Iran tend to err on the side of caution, video footage coming out of Iran is a rarity.
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The decision to bar YouTube happened after a video clip apparently showing an Iranian university official importuning a female student, and another one showing a Muslim cleric with a woman, were posted on the site.
As well as scenes that could embarrass such pillars of the establishment, the authorities are more than likely concerned about political content, music videos and pornography.
Scenes showing confrontations with the police and events featuring critics of the government can easily be recorded on a small camera or mobile phone and posted on the internet. According to Mina, a women's rights activist, a day after an altercation between a girl and Iran's moral police in Tehran's Haft-e Tir Square, the images were available on the web.
At the same time, the authorities may condone some of these video images as they serve as a warning to others.
In recent years, underground rap bands in Iran have been posting home recordings on YouTube. These videos are immensely popular. For example, a song called "Parmida" has been viewed on YouTube more than 120,000 times.
performers often take about the realities of life for young Iranians, including
such taboo subjects as alcohol and relationships.
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Internet users are also curious about pornography, which is banned outright in Iran. In late 2006, a private video purporting to show sexual scenes involving a well-known Iranian TV actress caused a storm of controversy, with the internet footage copied onto DVD and sold illegally inside the country.
In August 2008, the prosecutor's office set up a special task force to identify and deal with websites deemed to be immoral. It was also announced that a special court would be established to try internet-related offences.
"Some pornographic and immoral websites have made the internet environment unsafe by promoting incest and other despicable sexual acts, which have been a cause of concern for families," said Tehran's chief prosecutor, Said Mortazavi.
In mid-2008, a Tehran court official [simplified as we don't name the man and give his court two different titles in one sentence] announced that four people had been arrested for running immoral websites. He said the court was forced to act because the sites could jeopardise the moral future of Iranian society.
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Free speech advocates counter that the authorities are engaged in a wide-ranging assault on new media, including restrictions on online writers and journalists.
Iran is included in the latest list of countries described as enemies of the internet by the Paris-based media rights watchdog Reporters Without Frontiers.
Before YouTube was blocked, the main barrier for Iranians was the slow speed of their internet access. The authorities placed restrictions on high-speed connections for domestic users a couple of years ago. The most they are allowed is one hundred and twenty eight kilobytes per second, and that option is very expensive by local standards, at fifty US dollars a month.
Behrang, a 24-year-old electrical engineering student, would be prepared to pay even this price but says there are practical difficulties to be overcome. There isn't an internet provider company in the area of central Tehran where he lives, while other users find that their district lacks the right kind of phone lines, or that they have to join a queue to apply for a high-speed connection.
Governments face many difficulties in trying to controlling websites whose content is generated by the public. For the Iranian authorities, the simplest way of stopping people looking at sites like YouTube is to block access altogether.
Amir Mansouri is a journalist in Tehran
This article is an abridged and translated version of the full original text published on the Farsi pages of Mianeh, with editorial adjustments agreed with the writer made to provide clarity for English-language readers.
About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (iwpr.net) the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic society that is Iran today.
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