Since the Green Revolution in 2009, the once vibrant Iranian blogosphere has become a shadow of itself. After the violence that saw Neda Agha-Soltan become a symbol of the revolution after a video of her death was uploaded to YouTube, the Iranian regime has cracked down on online communication and internet freedom. While blogging in general has declined throughout the world with the advent of Facebook and other social media, the drop that Iran has witnessed is greatly linked to the political climate that has seen hundreds of bloggers threatened, arrested, detained, and murdered. One study estimated 64,000 blogs in Persian at the peak. Only 15% of the blog URLs in the network were the same from 2009-2013. Fifty percent of reformist blogs are gone or not active, and twenty percent of the prominent blogs from 2008-2009 were still online at the end of 2013.
The first Persian blog was probably that of Hossein Derakshshan, known to some as the Iranian Blogfather. Deraskshshan, who goes by Hoder online, spent six years in the notorious Evin prison for his criticism of hardliner policy and Ahmadinejad in particular. While he is still active on Twitter, he no longer blogs regularly, and the tone of his writing has changed. He laments the loss of the vibrant blogosphere and the online independence it once had, condemning the social media giants for crushing that independence. He believes hyperlinks were a sort of currency, but now most content is housed within social media, which makes it easier to control information. Many of the bloggers who suffered a similar fate no longer have a public online voice.
Hoder was not the first Iranian blogger to go to prison, nor was his punishment the worst. Sattar Beheshti lost his life in Evin prison, a victim of torture at the hands of abusive guards. According to Global Voices Threatened Voices, 44 Iranian bloggers are currently in prison. The situation hasn’t changed under the Rouhani regime; in fact; arbitrary waves of arrests are rather normal. Since Rouhani has taken office, the following Iranians have been arrested for what they have posted online:
- Oct 2013: Mahdi Khazali sentenced to 6 years, released after 7 months
- May 2014: 8 Facebook users sentenced to a combined 123 years
- May 2014: 6 youths arrested for posting a video of them dancing to the song “Happy”
- Sep 2014: Facebook activist Soheil Arabi sentenced to death; the sentence was commuted in Sept 2015 to two years of theology study
- Oct 2014: Atena Daemi sentenced to 7 years for Facebook posts
- Oct 2014: 11 arrested for text messages containing jokes about Khomeini
- Feb 2015: 12 arrested for Facebook posts; another 25 summoned
- Jun 2015: 6 arrested for “illegal invitations on social networks;” 1 arrested for WhatsApp activity
- Sep 2015: Supreme Cyberspace Council created by Khamenei
- Nov 2015: 170 arrested for “acting against moral security” and “distributing indecent and immoral” texts and images
- Nov 2015: Journalist Somaz Ikdar sentenced to 3 years for Facebook posts
- Nov 2015: Blogger Mohammad Reza Pourshjari completed his prison term but has yet to be released
Why were blogs so popular in Iran? Well, there’s the obvious reason that it was a platform to speak in a society that doesn’t always allow its citizens to speak. But what is often overlooked is the illusion of anonymity that blogging provided, an illusion shattered by regime crackdowns that began in the middle of the aughts and continues until now. When the first crackdowns began, bloggers who hosted their blogs on Iranian hosting services were easy targets for hardliners; moving to international platforms like Blogger and WordPress kept them only one step ahead until the hardliners learned how to find users through their IP addresses. Next came proxy servers. In a demonstration of what is good with humanity, many people across the globe worked round the clock during the Green Revolution to set up proxies so Iranians could continue to access social media and information about the protests. Photos of Neda lying in a pool of blood shared on social media served as a catalyst for continued protests that may have had some effect on Rouhani’s election. It was a spark, but only a spark.
VPNs became the next step to protect anonymity online, but the regime has become more sophisticated as well, having learned to block VPNs with varying degrees of success. A cyberpolice force and Supreme Cyberspace Council have been created, and the regime has forced IP registration for individuals and internet cafes, as well as identity registration for website owners and cell users. Despite the regime’s crackdown on VPNs, Iranians still use them to give themselves some semblance of internet freedom.
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