The Iranian Blogosphere Through The Looking Glass

Compared to other countries in the Middle East, the Iranian people have a high level of political maturity and an organized popular movement for democratic socio-political change. So why do Iranians continue to revolt on the blogosphere and the streets of Tehran?

2009 was a tumultuous years for blogging in various parts of the world, but I don't think anyone felt the impact as much as those who were residents or ex-pats of Iran. While US citizens can empathize with those who protested last June against the Iranian elections, it's difficult to understand the full import of what life must be like when trying to communicate to fellow nationals inside and outside of that country.

To gain greater insight into the Iranian blogosphere, one needs to review  the statistics, the historical context and the current geo-political status of Iran today.

By the numbers

As of September 2009, according to InternetWorldStats, Iran had 48.5% Internet penetration (the second highest percentage in the Middle East behind Israel at 72.8%). In contrast, approximately 74.1% percent of Americans have Internet access, where a country like Yemen is one of the lowest in the Middle East hovering around 1.6%.

The functional expansion of Persian blogs is a reaction to social restrictions imposed by a totalitarian theocratic regime that even after 30 years has not been able to force its ideal social order upon the Iranian society in its entirety.

Blogs are flexible communications and social tools that can be controlled by authors. In Iran,  they are preferably used by the younger generation to replace certain missing or dysfunctional social institutions in Iranian society.

Communication via blogs is a phenomenon that occurred in the first decade of the new millennium and varies in total numbers by country. An Internet survey conducted by Blogherald in 2005 indicated that the total number of blogs worldwide was estimated at 100 million - and out of that number 700,000 were registered as Persian blogs (both within and outside Iran).

So at first glance, by the numbers, Iran appears as one of the most progressive countries in the Middle East. With approximately 60,000 blogs and 20 million people connected to the Internet, the Iranian cyberworld appears dynamic. However the strong arm of the existing regime has control as to what can be accessed and the government filters out content they don't want the citizenry to see. 

Filters and Censorship

The Iranian government censors the Internet. In addition to blocking access to specific Web sites, it also bans the search of certain keywords. Beyond pornographic Web sites, the main targets of the Iranian authorities is political /social blogs and Web sites which deprives many from free expression. The Iranian government does not have well-defined filtering policies as it changes the rule book often based on the degree of unrest at the time.

Suffice to say, this type of error message is viewed frequently by Iranian citizens.

According to a Global Voices' online report, Iranian officials in 2006 noted 10 million websites and blogs that had been filtered and in 2009, 5 million had been blocked.

Remember McCarthy

Similar to the McCarthyism of the 1950s that we experienced in the States, in May 2007, the state-run newspaper Kayhan issued a defamatory article series against a number of well-known intellectuals, artists and film makers, who mostly reside and work in Iran. In these articles, the filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, the photographer Mariam Zandi, the editor Ali Dehbashi, the director of the Tehran House of Artists Behrooz Gharibpoor, the former director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art Alireza Sami’-Azar and others were accused of secretly preparing a “velvet revolution” in order to “softly overthrow” the Islamic Republic.

Persian news websites such as BBC Persian, AmirKabir (a student news publication) and Balatarin, a popular citizen media portal have been filtered along with We4change, a women's activist blog/website.

Dr Nima MinaDr Nima MinaJust two years ago, in a research analysis filed by Dr. Nima Mina, titled 'Blogs,Cyber-Literature and Virtual Culture,' he wrote, "as the adversarial relationship between the Islamic regime (beginning with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presidency in the summer of 2005) and the international community becomes more antagonistic, the Iranian people are increasingly losing their voice and are deprived of their right of self-determination." Mina is an academic staff member at the University of London and his research includes the impact of new media on the progress of the Iranian civil society.

"The Iranian people are treated as identical with the dictatorial regime which has, many would argue, taken them hostage for the past 28 years. They are now in danger of becoming the real losers of a conflict provoked by the regime’s political and ideological agenda, which is being carried out without the people’s consent and against their interest," adds Mina.

In June 2007, all Iranian bloggers were ordered to register their blogs through a virtual government office. In the registration process, bloggers who wrote under a pseudonym had to disclose their real identity. The judiciary’s registration directive triggered a wide civil resistance action by non-conformist bloggers. Even some bloggers who published under their own names and lived inside the country participated in the resistance.

Iranian Election Protests in June

Mahmoud AhmadinejadMahmoud AhmadinejadShortly after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election as president in June 2005, there were clear indications of a conservative campaign for a stronger centralization of state power over the media. During the first two years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, more than 100 newspapers and other periodicals were banned.

At the time, according to the reformist activist Mohammad Javad Haqshenas, only 3 % of all press outlets are under the control of the critics of the government, whereas 70 % are run by active supporters of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Despite the government crackdown, Iran's social network managed to penetrate the outside world. While the Iranian government continued to filter and censor the Internet, social applications like Twitter that are not tied to a particular Web site became the digital megaphone that amplified the unrest in the country.