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Media Matters: June 6, 2008

Iran: Slow Internet Speeds Hinder Web Access

By Farangis Najibullah

Time for a coffee -- or two -- while you wait at this Tehran Internet cafe

Like many young professionals in his native Tehran, Mohammad says he belongs to a new generation of Iranians who cannot imagine their personal and professional lives without the Internet.

The 27-year-old sales and advertising executive uses the Internet at work -- to sell his company's goods -- and at home to stay in touch with friends, meet new people, and keep up with the news.

"Computers and the Internet -- including services such as e-faxes and e-mails -- have become increasingly popular in workplaces, where people use them for communication, searches, and storing data," he says. "The age of using paper and paperwork has passed."

With about 15 percent of the population plugged into the Internet, Iran is home to one of the largest populations of web users in the Middle East.

But Mohammad says the length of time it takes to open websites is extremely frustrating and is the biggest problem for Iranians who have Internet connections at home.

In Iran, only offices and companies are allowed to have high-speed Internet connections.

"It becomes extremely annoying, especially when you want to download a photo," Mohammad says. "Downloading video takes ages ,and sometimes it's simply impossible to open and watch a video on the Internet."

Omid Habibinia, a Swiss-based communications expert, confirms Iranians' complaints about the glacial pace of the Internet in their country. He tells Radio Farda that in many cases, it is 100 times slower than the average speed in the United States or Europe.

Mixed Signals

Iranian authorities acknowledge the problem and blame it on the country's Internet service providers.

Iranian Communication and Information Technology Minister Mohammad Soleimani, however, insists that the existing speed is perfectly adequate "to use at home and universities and even for downloading a 500-page book from the Internet."

Soleimani told the semi-official news agency Fars earlier this month that there are not enough private Internet users in Iran who are willing to pay for high-speed Internet connections.

But Internet experts and media-rights defenders accuse the authorities of deliberately keeping the Internet speed low in order to frustrate people from downloading photos and video and reducing the amount of information they can access.

While the Internet has become an essential part of the lives of millions of young, tech-savvy Iranians, the authorities "try to restrict people's access to the free flow of information through the Internet," according to Habibinia.

"I don't believe that the problem here is the lack of customers," Habibinia says. "The minister himself once has said the high-speed Internet would create security problems. In reality, the low Internet speed has become a tool to keep the net restricted, it has become a tool to censor the Internet directly and openly."

Specific Targets, Too

Reza Moeni, who is in charge of the Afghanistan, Iran, and Tajikistan desk at the Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders, notes official bans on websites and unofficial filtering-out of webpages, and he calls the lack of fast Internet connections yet another way for the government to block the flow of information.

Iranian authorities maintain that they only block immoral websites that contradict Iranian society's ethical values -- such as pornographic websites.

In reality, however, they block access to many local and international news websites, the sites of rights activists, and political opponents' blogs and online publications.

"Whether those websites that have been blocked most recently in Iran -- including the websites of the Iranian Women's Society, the One Million Signatures Campaign, and Amir Kabir University -- were against moral values or were they only using freedom of speech to freely distribute information?" Moeni says. "The majority of the websites that face censorship and filtering in Iran are news sites and blogs, the kinds of websites that exist freely elsewhere in the world."

Even social networking sites like Facebook have been filtered in Iran. Online social forums and chats have become increasingly popular among Iranian young people, with many of them finding friends and even spouses through such networking.

Mohammad, the young Iranian professional, says that "nowadays, even music sites are being blocked."

But as the authorities try to limit young people's access to the Internet, Iranian users are finding ways to get through the state's technological barriers.

Some Iranians use so-called proxy sites or antifiltering search engines to access websites that have been blocked by the government. And "proxies," in turn, also slow down Internet access speed.

"Well, we had to find our own ways to use the Internet," Mohammad quips, "because it seems that the authorities want to block every single site on the Internet, apart from the Iranian security services' website."

Radio Farda correspondent Hassan Jafari contributed to this report

OSCE Appeals To Kazakhstan To Restore RFE/RL Website

OSCE representative on freedom of the media, Miklos Haraszti

The OSCE's representative on media freedom, Miklos Haraszti, has urged the government of Kazakhstan to restore access to RFE/RL's Kazakh-language website, which has been blocked for nearly six weeks despite repeated requests by RFE/RL that the service be restored.

In a letter to Kazakh Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin, Haraszti says he is "hopeful" the problem that began on April 11 was "merely technical" and could be resolved swiftly.

Haraszti calls RFE/RL an "important public-service source of information for Kazakh citizens, as well as for viewers, listeners, and Internet users throughout Central Asia and beyond."

Access has also been blocked to RFE/RL's websites in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan, because KazTelecom, the state telecom operator, is a key Internet service provider across Central Asia.

The problems come as several RFE/RL reporters face harassment in Turkmenistan and amid growing international concern that Central Asia's media environment is deteriorating, including in comparatively progressive Kyrgyzstan.

Haraszti's letter arrives at a sensitive time for Astana. In 2010, the energy-rich Central Asian power is due to assume the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The letter may draw fresh attention, however, on Kazakhstan's fitness for that office, given its shortcomings on human rights, democracy, and press freedom.

"I am convinced that the state Internet service providers were informed by Your Government that interference in providing service would violate Kazakhstan's press freedom commitments," Haraszti wrote in his letter, which is dated May 21. He adds that under OSCE Permanent Council Decision No. 633, participating states pledged "to take action to ensure that the Internet remains and open and public forum for freedom of opinion and expression."

However, rights groups decry the state of the media in Kazakhstan. In 2007, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based media watchdog, said Kazakhstan has "total control of influential broadcast media" and a "record of unpunished attacks on the press." The U.S.-based democracy watchdog Freedom House has labeled the Kazakh media as "not free."

This week, the CPJ weighed in again, voicing concern about RFE/RL's blocked Central Asian websites.

"We are concerned about Kazakhstan's procrastination in restoring service to RFE/RL's local language website despite repeated requests by the broadcaster," Nina Ognianova, CPJ's Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, said in a statement released on May 20. "The website is an essential alternative source of news and information for Kazakhstani audiences, and authorities should make it their priority to return it to them."

Kazakh officials so far have not publicly commented on the OSCE's letter, which came after RFE/RL President Jeffrey Gedmin publicly criticized Kazakh authorities for failing to promptly address what he called "a very disturbing" problem. Gedmin said Astana's failure to respond to the outage "suggests it's a case of deliberate interference."

Further Concerns

Blocked websites are not the only Central Asian challenge facing RFE/RL, which is funded by the U.S. Congress and broadcasts in 28 languages in 21 countries.

In Turkmenistan, several RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondents have recently faced harassment by the authorities. At least two correspondents have been told to stop working for RFE/RL or face unspecified consequences. Other reports have been denied official accreditation, thus depriving them of a legal basis for working as journalists.

The authorities in Uzbekistan forced RFE/RL to close down its Tashkent bureau in late 2005, although Uzbek-language broadcasting continues.

In Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, international rights advocates have voiced concern over a new media bill that they say would kill any progress on press freedom made since Bishkek's 2005 popular uprising to oust leader Askar Akaev.

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev is due to approve or reject the bill by May 24. It's unclear whether he will sign it into law.

"President Bakiev must veto this new bill, which obliterates Kyrgyzstan's attempt at broadcasting reform," the CPJ's Ognianova said in a statement on May 15. "If signed, this law would neuter the modest press freedom gains of recent years by giving the state total control over broadcasting."

Afghanistan: Watchdog Appeals To Kabul Over 'Blasphemous' Reporter

A supporter of Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh holds a picture of the journalist during a rally in Kabul (file photo)

There's renewed international concern for Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, a young Afghan journalist sentenced to death for blasphemy. The press freedom group Reporters Without Borders is urging the Afghan government to cooperate with the lawyer of Kambakhsh, who remains jailed in Kabul awaiting an appeal hearing.

Nearly two months have passed since Kambakhsh was transferred to the Afghan capital from a jail in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif. Yet the young journalism student -- who was sentenced to death at a summary trial in October for allegedly distributing information insulting to Islam -- is still languishing in a Kabul prison with no fixed date for his appeals hearing.

This week, Reporters Without Borders, the international press-freedom watchdog, once again raised its voice, appealing to the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to cooperate with Kambakhsh's lawyer.

Kevin Olivier, who works on Asian issues for the organization in Paris, says the lawyer still has not received the file for the case from the Afghan authorities, which is preventing him from preparing the appeal.

"The case has not progressed since it was transferred to the Kabul court of justice," Olivier says. "We urge the authorities to speed up the procedure so that Kambakhsh's appeal can receive a fair hearing, far from the influence of religious fundamentalists."

Sentenced To Death

A journalism student who wrote for the newspaper "Jahan-e Naw" (New World), Kambakhsh was arrested in October on what rights activists say were trumped up charges of distributing information insulting to Islam. Kambakhsh was said to have distributed printouts of an article by an Iranian blogger about Koranic passages that the author said discriminated against women.

On January 22, Kambakhsh was sentenced to death in a trial that relatives say was held behind closed doors. The case highlights the tension between international human-rights law -- which the Afghan Constitution pledges to uphold -- and some interpretations of Islam.

Reporters Without Borders says his lawyer did not dare attend the trial for fear of reprisals. The watchdog is now urging the Afghan government to ensure the appeals hearing, which has still not been scheduled, will be fair and open.

"This was not the case when he was tried and sentenced to death for blasphemy in Mazar-e Sharif," Olivier says. "We call on foreign governments to continue to intercede on Kambakhsh's behalf."

Appeal Not Scheduled

However, just when his appeal will be heard remains unclear.

"They have not given us an exact time for hearing the appeal, but we hope it will be next month," Kambakhsh's brother, Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, who is also a journalist, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan.

In the wake of an international uproar over the case, Afghan President Hamid Karzai reportedly told a delegation of Afghan journalists in February not to worry about Kambakhsh, to trust the legal system, and that he would be freed soon.

Kambakhsh was finally transferred to Kabul on March 27. He is being held in Pul-e Charkhi prison, in the eastern part of the capital.