Middle East

Iran, Wired

Reformist Web Sites Buck Iranian Press Laws

Internet cafe Iran
A young woman sips tea in Tehran's first Internet cafe, Dec. 8, 2001 (Photo: AFP).

In a busy downtown Tehran Internet cafe, young people are taking turns checking the news and sipping tea while talking about closure of another reformist newspaper by the conservative judiciary.

"I used to check the foreign news on the Web, and chat of course," says Faramarz, 22, a language student. "But now I mainly check the Internet for the news about what's going on in Iran." In the latest clash between Iranian refomists and hard-liners it seems that the reformsits have found a new haven which is beyond the reach and understanding of the hard-liners: cyber space. In the past few weeks a major reformist newspaper, Norooz (New Day) was shut down, and its publisher, Mohsen Mirdamadi, the head of the Iranian Parliament's Security and Foreign Affairs Committee, was sentenced to six months in prison. A week later the daily Ayeneh (Mirror), which replaced it, was closed after a week. Rooz-eh No (New Day) was also prevented from publishing by the conservative judiciary, which has closed more than 50 newspapers over the past three years and sentenced their writers to imprisonment and flogging.

Lacking reformist papers to publish their work, and fearful of jail terms and floggings, reformist writers have chosen the Internet as an outlet for their opinions. Many of the reports in the new reformist Web sites would quickly shutter a newspaper's offices. The reformist Web site Emrooz.org recently broke a story on conservatives' plan to start a chain of brothels called "houses of chastity." These dens of virtue quickly became the subject of numerous bad jokes. Soon after, the hard-liners condemned the plan as a rumor propagated by enemies of the state, and no one took responsibility for proposing it.

Another reformist Web site, Rooydad, is maintained by Iran's main reformist party, Participation Front. Rooydad recently reported a meeting between Saddam Hussein's son, Qusai, and a senior commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, in which Qusai Hussein asked for Iran's help when and if the United States attacks Iraq. Iran's foreign ministry and the Revolutionary Guards initially denied the reports, but Rooydad—bolstered by editors who serve in Iran's intelligence service—produced their evidence. Eventually, the foreign ministry and the guards were forced to concede the meeting had indeed taken place.

"You see, writers must write. Besides, we don't know any other profession," one of the editors of Emrooz, who didn't want to be identified, recently explained. "So far, the Internet has provided us with a safe environment in which we can work without the judiciary sticking its nose into our affairs." Although Iran's restrictive press laws do cover the Internet, the judiciary has yet to crack down on critical Web sites, perhaps because the traditional clergy is unfamiliar with the Web and because very few Iranians have access to the medium.

"Usually the closure of a newspaper starts with an article in Kayhan (Universe) [the hardliner's main organ,]" says Emrooz's editor. "Then it's read by a high-ranking conservative cleric, and then a paper or a writer is condemned in Friday prayer sermons. Fortunately for us, although Kayhan has repeatedly have called us 'parasites and leftovers from enemy newspapers' and asked for the closure of the site, the clerics haven't bothered to take a look at what we do on the Net."

As more Iranians turn to the Internet to get news, rumors are spreading among Internet users around the country that the hardliners are preparing to do in cyber space what they have done in print: shut down and restrict sources of information. Yet the young people in Tehran's Internet cafe are optimistic. "Of course we are worried that they might limit Internet Service Providers to a few which are run and controlled by the government," says Faramarz. "But even then, we will use something else. I've heard of these small satellite dishes that connect you to the Internet. What will they do with that?"