Iran's conservative judiciary has ordered one of the main pro-reform websites to be filtered. Ahead of the parliamentary election scheduled for 20 February, analysts say conservatives are trying to restrict the Internet, which has become one of the main platforms for reformists to challenge their conservative rivals.
Prague, 13 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's hard-line judiciary last week ordered one of the main pro-reform websites to be filtered, meaning that its contents cannot be viewed inside the country.
The "Emrooz" website was originally launched by people close to the reformist camp of the Iranian political establishment and had become a focal point for views opposed to the country's conservative rulers. It has now become the first pro-reform website inside Iran to be blocked.
The Iranian press reported last year that a list of 150 other sites facing a ban has been prepared by the government and sent to Internet service providers. Iran's minister of telecommunications denies the existence of such a list.
"Emrooz" defenders say the move against their site is illegal, arguing Iran has no legislation that would limit the use of the Internet. Sina Motallebi, an Iranian journalist and the first author of a weblog to be jailed for articles published on the web, says "Emrooz" plays an important role on Iran's political scene.
"The 'Emrooz' website has a particular importance among political websites that were created in Iran during the last two years. On one hand, because of the closeness of 'Emrooz' owners with the most progressive branch of reformists within the government, 'Emrooz' covers firsthand and exclusive news. On the other hand, because the owners of the site were not active under a political party and were part of a news organization, they were free from restrictions and red lines imposed on other groups," Motallebi said.
Since its launch, "Emrooz" has been under fire from hard-liners who are dissatisfied with its content.
Motallebi says by banning "Emrooz" ahead of parliamentary elections in February, the conservatives are attacking one of the last media outlets controlled by the reformists. "Now, because of the importance of the parliamentary election and its political challenges, the action against the 'Emrooz' website can be considered an attack on one of the last media outlets of this faction," he said.
Motallebi says, however, he does not believe the conservatives can stop the free flow of information through the Internet. "Technical problems will not let them ban websites en masse," he said. "Right now there are many possibilities for getting around filtering inside Iran. Apart from that, the rapid growth of weblogs will prevent them from stopping the flow of information with banning one or two websites."
In recent years, online diaries have become a popular method of expression in Iran. The more than 20,000 Iranian weblogs cover a wide range of topics, from taboo issues like sex and dating to political developments.
Hossein Derakhshan, a leading Iranian weblog writer says, in his opinion, the online diaries are the only free media left in Iran. "Weblogs are absolutely free," he said. "You just need Internet access to simply build your weblog in one or two or three minutes, and then you can publish your thoughts to the world."
Motallebi last year spent three weeks in jail for articles he published in his weblog and for interviews with foreign radio stations. He credits a petition circulated over the Internet as playing an important role in his release. He adds that during the time he spent in jail he realized that conservatives are determined to restrict websites with political content critical of the establishment.
"From that time, I realized that the conservatives are very concerned about the rise of political content on websites and that they are strongly determined to restrict and stop this movement. They have different ways for doing that such as restricting websites or summoning and even jailing writers," Motallebi said.
Some say that given the political nature of many weblogs, any new restrictions on the Internet could eventually affect many different sites. But weblog author Derakhshan argues that since most of the weblogs are not backed by any political group or party, it is unlikely that they will be banned too.
"You have to be always worried in Iran, for everything -- even for illogical and irrational things. But I think the government, especially the judiciary, is more concerned about websites that are close to their opponents. Reformists, on the other hand, are very concerned about the websites that are backed by hard-line politicians and groups," Derakhshan said.
About two weeks ago, 140 reformist deputies asked President Mohammad Khatami to reveal the identity of those behind antireform websites that, according to the deputies, spread rumors and false information. One of those websites was supposed to be banned as well, but it is still available on the Internet.