Iran: Re-elected administration must make rhetoric reality for free expression online

Following his re-election for a second term in Iran’s 19 May Presidential elections, ARTICLE 19 urges President Hassan Rouhani to take seriously this opportunity to address failures and gaps in guaranteeing the right to freedom of expression and access to information, particularly online, in line with the administration’s proposed commitments at this and the previous election, and with international human rights standards.

After the results, there were nation-wide eruptions of joy and hope, as Iranians celebrated the election as a recognition of their desire for reform and moderation of the country’s isolating and repressive tendencies. Rouhani’s contender, the hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi, had amongst his policies further curbs to freedom of expression and rights online. While the election of Rouhani is not a guarantee of fundamental freedoms, it is an administration that is more inclined towards the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ Article 19, and the election clearly shows the desire among Iranian voters for a new approach to guarantee these fundamental rights.

While Rouhani followed through on certain promises during his first term as President, such as the Iran-US nuclear deal, others, such as his Charter of Citizens Rights, were more rhetorical than tangible, and saw little or no real progress to improve Iranians ability to freely express themselves.

As ARTICLE 19 noted in our recent Tightening the Net briefing in the lead up to 19 May, the Rouhani administration claimed to have made great strides towards Internet freedoms in its first term. While it did improve access online through improved Internet speeds, it has otherwise only achieved prevention of further censorship, and only on certain platforms. Thousands of websites remained or became censored throughout the previous term, alongside numerous arrests for freedom of expression online, and efforts to centralise user data into the hands of the government. Initiatives by the Rouhani administration such as intelligent filtering, targeted censorship and articles promoting an end to Internet filtering in the Charter of Citizen’s Rights have proven to be ineffective and baseless, given the reality in Iran of continued online repression, violations of user privacy, and restrictions on access to information online.

Additionally, the work of Iran’s conservative Judiciary and Revolutionary Guards has continued to strengthen the state’s powers of intimidation, arrest, surveillance and censorship. One of the more dispiriting cases against freedom of expression this past year has been the case against social media user Sina Dehghan, who has spent this past year fighting a death sentence for posting “immoral content” on social media. The continued imprisonment of political prisoners, journalists, minorities, and the increased executions under the watch of Rouhani is an onus on this administration to acknowledge and remediate.

In his last campaign speech on 17 May, Rouhani reiterated his promise to confront these powers, criticizing the nation’s powerful unelected bodies who are appointed to their positions by the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. He promised he would be the nation’s “lawyer” who “defends people’s rights” in the face of injustices by these powers.

However, it remains to be seen if Rouhani can enact his promises to hold these powers to account. He commences this new term with the weight of a popular vote and a majority reformist and moderate parliament behind him. Rouhani’s re-elected administration can no longer hide behind a veil of powerlessness and promises. The ability of people in Iran to freely access information and exercise freedom of expression online without fear of repression, in line with international human rights standards, remains severely restricted. We urge the new administration to prioritise the rights of Iranians to free expression online and make its promises to safeguard these rights a reality.