The Mirage of Freedom of Expression in Iran?

The Mirage of Freedom of Expression in Iran? - Protection

Promises Undelivered – The Pressure on Rouhani to Take a Stance

On the 27th of April, Hassan Rouhani opened the 7th Tehran International book fair where he again made impressive statements asserting that “to the extent that thinking is respected, the thinkers themselves and their products, that is, books, should inspire respect and honor,” he continued: “however, to respect the cultural producers is impossible only through lip service; the law and the government should work to support and protect the place and the dignity of authors and cultural creators; without freedom of speech, no thinking and idea would be created in the books’ pages or virtual electronic pages.” He furthered the speech by telling the audience about the importance of criticism and debate brought through books, and the significance of such debate for society. At the end of the speech he boldly mentioned that those who saw to “impede people’s moral excellence,” should remember that the current year was the year of “culture and economy,” not the “year of lies; defamation; and false flags.”

With the pile-up of such wilful statements from Rouhani, impatience, due to lack of action, is running high. Concurrent speeches were made by Intelligence Minister, Mohammed Alavi, who declared that “people need to feel that their rights won’t be violated, and that their lives are secure, furthermore we don’t have the right to interfere in the private lives.” Yet again, in conjunction with the Iranian government’s passion for irony, a bill to ban the instant messaging service WhatsApp was later approved according to the Secretary of Iran’s Internet Censorship Committee, Abdul Khorramabad. Similarly, the Iranian newspaper Ebtekar was suspended due its coverage of the disaster at Evin Prison last week and the consequent removal of the head of Iran’s prisons, Gholam Hossein Esmaili (although this ban was removed on the 30th, four days after) and of course the unfounded arrest of Narenji’s gadget bloggers. These constant threats to publishers prevent all legitimate routes to free expression, making Rouhani’s statements nothing but political confetti.

One would think that with the election of Rouhani plans such as the ‘Clean’ National Intranet scheme would have been abandoned; yet moves are still being made under his administration to permanently block access to some sites online, thus ridding the Iranians from access to ‘impure websites’.

A recent video of Rouhani claiming that all ethnic minorities in Iran enjoy the same rights, had a chilling insincerity about it – using the same ambiguous phrasing emblematic of the Iranian regime, he claims that only those who do not work within the frameworks of the law, national interest, morality and integrity will be targeted. Whether this is a sign that Rouhani may not be willing to go as far as he implies to protect the rights of Iranian citizens will soon be clear.

We must note that the political structures in Iran leave little power to Rouhani to bring into effect his promises. The hardliners in Iran have continually sent Rouhani indirect messages to show him that he will not be able to change things in Iran, with the newest example being the documentary called I Am Rouhani.  As Saeed Kamali Dehghan notes, this documentary was “seemingly produced to undermine his power, it depicts him as too soft on the country’s “enemies”, especially the US. It showed how far Rouhani’s opponents are prepared to go to challenge him.”  There are, however, increasing calls for Rouhani to go against his tormentors and break his silence on human rights abuses; one necessary move would be to release imprisoned journalists and political activist. Prominent human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotodeh released an open letter to the UN High Commissioner for Iran to also break the silence and bring about discourse of accountability for the attacks that took place in Evin on the 17 April 2014. The call for accountably became louder after reports that families of the ward 350 prisoners were threatened, attacked and beaten on Thursday and Friday of last week, many of whom were later arrested, again in a show of brutality by the Iranian guard.

Iranian’s ex-President Mohammed Khatami also made a statement demanding the Iranian government and Rouhani to release political prisoners and urged for an end to house arrest for two leaders who alleged fraud after the 2009 election – both of whom are suffering from serious health problems that some claim are the cause of their house arrest restrictions. Khatami explained that these steps would benefit the country and such ‘change’ in the country’s political atmosphere was among expectations from the self-proclaimed moderate administration of Rounani.

Although Rouhani reminds the nation that he will keep his election campaign promises, it is about time for him to take a firmer stance in regards to human rights in Iran and deliver his promises.

Recognition for the Brave Heroes of Information

Reporters Without Borders is publishing the a list of profiles for the ‘100 Information Heroes’ around the world that have courageously worked to protect the sanctity of free speech and expression – enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for World Press Day. This list has been created to highlight the work and bravery of these individuals that worked tirelessly to promote these freedoms regardless of the barriers set before them. Included in the list you have journalist Jila Bani Yaghoob who runs Kanoon Zanan Irani (Centre for Iranian Women) website which has been shut down until 2040; Said Matinpour a journalist with the weekly Azeri-language newspaper Yarpagh who “is among the media workers who have spent the longest time in the jails of Iran”; and Siamak Qaderi journalist and blogger Siamak Qaderi fired by the government news agency IRNA, receiving 4 years and 60 lashes, as punishment for daring to investigating the everyday lives of his fellow citizens, criticising government policies and interviewing gays for his blog. These harrowing stories and many others can be found on the Reporters Without Borders’s 100 Information Heroes website.

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