Green Supporters Want West To Help Iranians Access Internet, Uncensored Information
Human rights activists and supporters of the opposition Green Movement in Iran
are increasing their calls on the United States and other countries to help
Iranians access an unfiltered Internet by lifting sanctions and sharing key
software and technology.
Web surfers in Iran often find access to websites blocked by government-imposed
Despite the Iranian government's attempt to obstruct the flow of information,
the Internet proved crucial to members of the country's opposition movement as
they told the world about the nationwide protests following the country's
disputed presidential election on June 12, 2009, and the government crackdown on
protesters that followed. At least 70 people were killed.
Many activists, journalists, and ordinary citizens used their cell phones or
digital cameras to document the violence. The photographs and short videos they
later posted on YouTube were viewed by millions of people around the world and
helped to galvanize public opinion against Tehran's tactics.
Shiraz-based journalist Mohammad Reza Nasab Abdolahi
was sentenced to eight months in prison over a story he posted on his
blog after the vote.
Nasab Abdolahi had taken pictures
of and reported on four vote boxes at
the Shiraz national library whose ballots had apparently not been counted. (The
Shiraz governor later said the ballot boxes had nothing to do with the
Mohammad Reza Nasab
Nasab Abdolahi says he felt it was his duty as a journalist to report on what he
saw and that his blog provided him an outlet he otherwise would not have had,
considering the strict controls under which traditional media works in Iran.
Nasab Abdolahi says reliable access to the Internet is crucial to his work and
the work of other Iranian bloggers, which includes keeping current on the latest
news, updating the blogs, and networking with friends and colleagues on sites
such as Facebook. But the government's sophisticated methods of Internet
censorship makes access to unfiltered websites a real challenge.
National 'Intranet' Planned
Nasab Abdolahi says certain types of software can help Internet users bypass
state-imposed filters but that the software sometimes doesn't work for all
websites. "Using those filter-breakers makes an already slow Internet even
slower," he says. "So I end up getting disconnected many times before I can
visit the website I need. And I have to log in and re-log in several times."
Berlin-based blogger and journalist Mehdi Mohseni, who left Iran in June 2009,
predicts Iranians will likely have an even tougher time accessing the Internet
in the future. He notes that the Iranian government is working on a project to
create a national "intranet" -- an internal Internet service -- that would be
separate from the World Wide Web and which would effectively seal off Iranians
from the Internet.
"We don't have information about how much progress the Islamic republic has made
on this," he says. "The launching of a national e-mail system and the suspension
of [Google's] Gmail is a preliminary part of that project."
Mohseni believes Western countries should do all they can to help Iranians
access an uncensored Internet. Iranians will have a broader range of
information, he says, and the world will get a better picture of what Iranians
think and want.
Iranian Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi says providing access to
uncensored information supports Iranian activists without tainting them or
giving the Iranian government an excuse to increase pressure on them. "Giving
the Iranian people the possibility to access a free flow of information is the
best thing that can be done to help democracy in Iran," she says.
Ebadi says sanctions that prevent the export of technology that would allow
Iranians to override state filters should be lifted. "The most important issue
is the legal one," Ebadi says. "Sanctions in this regard should be removed.
After that, whatever help [Western states] want to give Iranian citizens should
Access Still Restricted
In March, the U.S. Treasury Department authorized the export to Iran of certain
personal Internet-based communication services, such as instant messaging.
Yet, as Mehdi Yahyanejad, the creator of the popular Balatarin
website, says, Iranians still don't have access to basic programs
and software that would facilitate their communication in and outside Iran and
also access to information. "Google Earth...and other open-source software that
is free cannot be downloaded in Iran because of the sanctions," he says.
Prominent human rights defender and former legislator Ali Akbar Musavi Khoeni,
who is currently based in Maryland, says the U.S. government realizes the
importance of helping Iranians access technology that would allow them to
communicate freely in and outside Iran. But he adds that, in practice, it's not
"The U.S. is pushing for [tougher] sanctions to be adopted against Iran at the
UN Security Council" over its disputed nuclear program, he says. "Maybe there is
concern that the removal of some of the sanctions would be confusing for public
He says he hopes that, despite such problems, the United States and other
countries will accelerate their efforts to assist Iranians seeking uncensored
Last month, Austin Heap, the director of the San Francisco-based Censorship
Research Center, told RFE/RL that the U.S. government had approved the export to
Iran of its antifiltering software called Haystack.
Yahyanejad says the international community should invest in antifiltering
software or technology that would allow them to provide satellite-based Internet
that could bypass Tehran's filtering efforts.
In Shiraz, Nasab Abdollahi says any efforts by the international community to
help Iranians access the Internet and bypass government censorship should be
welcomed. He says the Iranian government has demonstrated that it has no respect
for a basic human right: the right to information.
Copyright (c) 2010 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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