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Iranian Ministers Join Facebook En Masse, Sparking Debate About Online Censorship

The Facebook page of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
The Facebook page of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's foreign minister, was the first. In August, after his Facebook page began showing activity, Zarif announced that it was being updated by him and his children. He quickly gathered 160,000 "likes" and became jokingly known as the "minister of Facebook."

Then several other members of Iranian President Hassan Rohani's cabinet followed suit, joining the global social-media site, which the Iranian government has blocked for years. According to the daily "Shargh," 18 Iranian cabinet members have their own Facebook pages. Some of those named by "Shargh" later denied that they have pages on Facebook.

Rohani himself does not have an official Facebook page, but he has criticized online filtering in the past and said browsing the Internet is one of his hobbies.

The mass opening of Facebook pages by Iranian cabinet members is being seen both inside and outside Iran -- among the world's most restrictive online censors -- as an attempt by the new government to be more open and interactive with the country’s Internet-savvy youth.

It has also renewed a debate in the Islamic republic about the role of social media, the double standards of officials who use such sites, and the public's wish for Facebook, the most popular social-networking site in the country, to be unblocked.

Some government officials have dropped hints that an easing of restrictions is being considered.

On September 9, Mohammad Reza Aghamiri, a member of Iran's task force on filtering, suggested that Facebook could be unblocked "conditionally," but censorship would remain. He was quoted by Iranian media as saying that eventually, "criminal content" on Facebook could be filtered out from "useful" content.

Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei, Iran's prosecutor-general and head of the filtering task force, made similar comments the same day when a reporter asked why filtering Facebook was necessary if government officials are using it. "If crimes and instances of criminal activity are removed from Facebook then the filtering can be removed," Iranian news agencies quoted Ejei as saying. “But if instances of criminal activity exist, filtering must continue."

Amid the debate, the head of the task force in charge of online censorship and computer crimes, Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, has announced that his group will take a close look at the content on cabinet ministers' Facebook pages. "Some claim there has been criminal content posted on such pages, which the task force has to study and give its view [on]," Khoramabadi said over the weekend.

It wasn't clear whether he was referring to posts by officials themselves or the critical comments many Iranians have posted on officials’ pages.

Several Iranian lawmakers interviewed by the website Fararu sounded optimistic about the expanding use of social media by the government. Lawmaker Gholamreza Tajgardun said the use of any tools to communicate with people should be considered positive. Esmail Jalili said social media should be viewed as an opportunity, while another lawmaker, Kamaledin Pirmoazen, said there was no need to filter social media in this day and age.

For others, however, social-networking sites -- especially Facebook -- are still the tools of the enemy. The head of the cyberpolice in the southern province of Semnan, Ali Mirahmadi, described Facebook recently as "the Trojan horse of the Zionist mafia" that serves Western espionage agencies.

Meanwhile, the man who opened the Facebook floodgates has also been making news on Twitter.

Last week, Foreign Minister Zarif tweeted his greetings to Iranian Jews for the Jewish New Year and had a brief exchange with the daughter of U.S. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, Christine Pelosi.

"The New Year would be even sweeter if you would end Iran's Holocaust denial," Pelosi wrote on Twitter, in response to Zarif's Rosh Hashanah wishes.

Zarif tweeted back: "Iran never denied it. The man who did is now gone. Happy New Year."

That answer brought cheers and praise for Zarif’s diplomatic and social-media skills. But not everyone was happy.

The hard-line daily "Kayhan" wrote that the "strange" tweets were not compatible with diplomatic etiquette and that Zarif had insulted former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who repeatedly questioned the extent of the Holocaust.

The daily didn’t object, however, to the fact that Zarif was using social media.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

* This article has been amended since publication in light of a denial by Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham that she had opened a Facebook account.

About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.


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