“Thank you very much for your support. What we need more than anything is bandwidth.” Tweet by Knv, 22 June 2009
“Very slow Internet connection. Scary. What is happening in Iran, which should not be reported?” Tweet by Parastoo, 16 December 2010
Almost two years on from Iran’s citizen journalism arousal, reporters, activists and bloggers have proven their staying power standing up to the country’s Cyber Army in their determination to participate in the online community that has arisen in the wake of the post-election uprising. Iranians inside and outside the country freely engage in political and cultural dialogue on activist websites. Though many sites were in existence before 2009 a multitude have been launched since in support of the Green Movement.
“Digital David fights theocratic Goliath,” said Timothy Garton Ash, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and Professor of European Studies at Oxford University, in an article entitled Tweeting for Freedom, 2009.
In this atmosphere of free expression, the theocratic government exerts control by slowing down Internet speed to almost a snail pace, which is in itself an easy tool for censorship. Then there is the intermittent blocking of networking sites. Intermittent because suspending them would prevent government agents’ access to useful information.
And there is a great deal at stake. The “Neda video” replayed worldwide within 24 hours of the young girl’s death on Tehran’s streets, was testament to the power of the Internet. The government hit back with a specialist Cyber Army, an extensive band of spies and hackers under the arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Defence Tech, a US security and military organ, stated that the IRGC’s cyber division is investing an annual budget of 76 million US dollars to deal with the online dissidents. A message on the Iranian Cyber Army’s website says the group was created in protest to the “interference of American and Zionists websites” in Iran’s internal affairs and “the spreading of false news”, warning all those involved in the “soft overthrow project” that action will be taken against them. As the Cyber Army targets sites world wide, it leaves un-Zorroesque mark of:
THIS SITE HAS BEEN HACKED BY IRANIAN CYBER ARMY
U.S.A. Think They Controlling And Managing Internet By Their Access, But They Don’t, We Control And Manage Internet By Our Power, So Do Not Try To Stimulation Iranian Peoples To…
NOW WHICH COUNTRY IN EMBARGO LIST? IRAN? USA?
WE PUSH THEM IN EMBARGO LIST
Iran's government already had a law in place that can label almost any Internet user a criminal. Indeed, Reporters Without Borders puts Iran in the lead with the greatest number of journalists in prison of any country. The Law of Computer Crimes, approved by Iran's parliament in January 2009 has been instrumental in the prosecution and repression of activists and bloggers, with 56 articles in the following categories:
Anti-security and disturbing the public peace
Criminal content regarding intellectual property and audio and visual issues
Content encourages, invites or provokes others to commit criminal acts
Content against state and public institutions and their responsibilities
Content used to facilitate other computer crimes
But the story continues as Iranians use their Internet tools to pursue there goals, most effectively in creating online petitions, quickly raising awareness of individual cases and garnering signatures, transforming domestic causes into international ones overnight, as in the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who has been spared her sentence of stoning. The government may send threatening emails to the creators of these pages, but the power of international pressure may be underestimated.
Saeed Valadbaygi, 28, left Iran at the end of 2009. With more than ten years' experience of activism and blogging, he was a key source of international news in the aftermath of the elections and continues to provide up-to-date reports from Iran to facilitate accurate analysis. I asked him how the Internet in Iran has evolved, how much it represents the voice of Iranians and how it has sustained its force in the face of a government crackdown.
“A very small percentage of those online are in Iran, yet some two million of the Diaspora are actively connected. If we look at all the [political] movements – women, children, the arts and film –many of the key players have now left the country. That generation of activists was formed over two decades as life became more and more challenging. We would need another two decades to develop this again. In Iran there is more newsworthy activity, but it is not accessible online. Here, [outside Iran], there is less activity, but it’s all because there is freedom of expression online. This opportunity has established stronger links inside and outside Iran. A dialogue has opened between people through the Internet.
Looking back, with the political developments of 2 Khordad [Khatami’s 1997 landslide election victory] and 18 Tir [attack on student dormitories in 1999 that marked a turning point] the ground was ripe for activity. Communities were formed as everyone established themselves online, from famous photographers to the student movement and human rights groups. The Internet became an essential tool and Iran ranked third-largest country of bloggers after the United States and China, with the Persian language the second most popular in the entire blogosphere. There were only two or three companies webhosting and the government controlled Internet service providers. But people had blogrolls, discovered each other and communicated, first by chat through Yahoo Messenger then weblogs and then email.
Before Google, your Yahoo Messenger ID was crucial. People knew theirs like [their] phone number. The atmosphere has always been one of clandestine identities. When I came to Canada my use of the Internet changed. There, I needed to know the best anti-filter software and back-up tools for not losing my work. Security from government spies is an issue for everyone in Iran, regardless of whether they are among the activists or not. Now, finally, I am able to use it to its true potential.
The western media played an important role in establishing the net in Iran, as it was advertising computers on satellite radio and television stations that created popular awareness. At the same time, a group of fundamentalists campaigned against the use of computers. Ahmadinejad’s camp can be included among them, as well as various clerics, parliamentary representatives and even university deans and professors. The Internet was a phenomenon and educating oneself was key. Once the culture of a phenomenon penetrates, it generates a fixation in people. This exploded in the heat of 2009. It took ten years for the culture and the tools to match it to integrate. Ten years before people had first acquired the hardware, then the software, they had taught themselves with the tools before understanding the culture. Now we have seen a first generation of web users and the gap has been closed for experienced users like activists and bloggers, who learned with Web 1.0 and are now challenging themselves with Web 2.0 . Now Twitter and Facebook and YouTube are in place but for the mainstream public there are still gaps.
Until June 2009, the people communicating from outside Iran were journalists and activists. I remember my first contact with the outside world when I was 15 or 16. We blindly followed anyone who was in touch. As the Internet culture became familiar, I created my blog. Then Facebook came on the scene. After the elections YouTube was heavily filtered, so I used Facebook for uploading films and footage. You could present an issue, your voice and material together. They did not realise about Facebook.
We quickly set up workshops on blogging, Facebooking and Tweeting so more people could learn. This helped everything mushroom. At the time the government was unaware of the impact of Facebook, but after the elections they began blocking the site.
Before June 2009, I had around 200 “friends”. This quickly became 100,000 after the live blogging we did. That was while I was still in Iran. After I left we started Street Journalist, and during last year’s Ashura [religious festival] we were the only source of live news, and in two languages with minute-by-minute coverage, live blogging with videos. This was a first in the history of Iranian web use so the site had more than 14 million hits. Small things are happening. They have tried to hack the site, but we have made adjustments. The Cyber Army [hackers believed to be supported by Iranian Revolutionary Guard] is more concerned with hacking sites to stop the interest generated, than with individual people. That’s left to the Ministry of Intelligence.
It is very difficult for people in Iran to keep up with the technology to combat the filters and deal with the slow servers. The servers in the Internet cafes are faster but then you can’t access the sites you want there, though technically they are more efficient and you are more protected in that you can send things without revealing your ISP. To upload five minutes of footage on YouTube could take 50 minutes at home. So we use proxies through alternative domains, so the person in Iran is in effect uploading the video via our computers outside the country. There is no them without us - nor us without them.
In this potent climate, many new working relationships were formed and filled gaps in our previous endeavours. We suddenly had translators in different countries and were able to correspond with the media of each country in their language. When I was in Iran, my readership was English speaking and I wanted to write in English to communicate with the outside world. That has changed now. We created Street Journalist for that, but the 70,000 people linked to my various Facebook pages are mostly in Iran and I now usually post in Persian. We strive to be independent of political groups, to be a people’s media with no restrictions. We have to be ahead with our interests and represent the many initiatives and movements occurring in Iran. Rather than accumulate numbers, I am trying to create democracy within our online discussions. You will see fewer antagonistic attacks on this forum and most of the individuals expressing themselves are writing from Iran. A community has arisen. They communicate on the page and also by email.
The exile community is very relevant and represents the Iranian middle class demographic well. Its members are organically linked and validate the struggle. It is as one body though we are not geographically close. Non-Iranian participation and support too has been unbelievable. It was very surprising to Iranians in Iran that hearts elsewhere in the world beat for them, partly because of the bleak perception that people had of Iranians because of ostracism from the international community that damaged the culture. Iranians felt they were closed from the rest of the world.
An interesting observation is that in Iran ours has been an urban world culture always absorbing things from other cultures. But the Green Movement introduced our culture to the international community – more than a million people protesting silently, walking side by side, and speaking to activists in various countries they talk about our political stance and behaviour in 2009. It was exemplary and showed our humanity. This generated solidarity and cultural dialogue. Young people in the West have a platform; in Iran the platform has limitations. Iranians have motivation; they are always looking up from below. In the West they are looking down from above. That is significant.