May 1, 2012
Interview with Yasmin Alem
- This is the first election since the controversial 2009 election and reports of a clampdown on media are increasing. What is the situation for social media and internet usage in the lead-up to the parliamentary elections?
With less than three weeks to parliamentary elections, the Iranian authorities are choking internet access in Iran. Social networking sites and international news sites have either been blocked or the connection is so slow that they are difficult to access. Email providers such as Yahoo, Gmail and MSN have been cut off sporadically, as have many sites with secure coding (https) that protects users from third-parties accessing their information. All of these disruptions have increased since the beginning of February.
The restrictions and extra filtering have even provoked reactions from government officials. On February 12, Ahmad Tavakoli, a conservative member of parliament and the head of the parliament's research center publicly criticized the crackdown on the internet and said "[t]he new filtering measure and cutting of access to the services used by most people without prior notice... will raise the ire of the people."
In the past few months, there has also been talk of establishing Halal internet, a national internet that would disconnect the Iranian population from the World Wide Web and create something like an intranet. With Halal, Iranians would only be able to access internal websites.
- Has the regime imposed similar restrictions in previous elections?
The Iranian regime traditionally permits a politically vibrant atmosphere to emerge before elections by easing restrictions on social liberties. In the months leading up to elections, it usually provides more space for debate in the press to encourage voter turnout. But this year, the regime is taking a different course. The pro-reformist daily newspaper, Roozegar, was shut down by the authorities in the first week of February after it published an interview with Mohammad Reza Khatami, the brother of former President Mohammad Khatami.
The government has also launched a systematic crackdown on civil society actors and journalists since the beginning of 2012. At least ten journalists and bloggers have been arrested. In recent weeks, Minister of Intelligence, Heydar Moslehi, revealed that the government had identified a network of journalists who worked with the BBC and had taken them into custody. In an unprecedented move, family members of journalists living abroad, including BBC Persian employees, have been harassed, questioned and detained.
- Why is the regime increasing media and civil society restrictions at this time?
The regime appears to be worried about two separate challenges. Its first concern is countering the call for an election boycott from reformist groups and political personalities who have used social networking sites and news websites to spread their message. By restricting access to these networks and websites, the authorities may be trying to prevent the message from reaching Iranians.
The second concern is security-related. The government's clampdown can be interpreted as part of the regime's new strategy to prevent unrest following the election, and a repeat of the turmoil after the 2009 presidential election. In the past, the authorities have tried not to arrest journalists and activists or clamp down on the media prior to elections because they want to at least appear to tolerate a vibrant electoral atmosphere. The arrests have usually happened after the elections. This election season, however, the regime started its campaign of intimidation and coercion early apparently because it views the poll as a potential security challenge.
Yasmin Alem, an independent Iran analyst, is the author of Duality by Design: The Iranian Electoral System published by the International Foundation of ElectoralSystems.
Click here to read Yasmin Alem's latest article on the upcoming Elections.