A version of this piece appeared in Global Voices Advocacy.
On July 13, Iran’s official state news agency reported that eight people had been sentenced to a combined term of 127 years in prison for their activities on Facebook. The eight youths reportedly were charged with “acting against national security, spreading propaganda against the establishment, insulting the sacred, and insulting the heads of the Islamic Republic.” The Iranian judiciary has not revealed the identities of those sentenced, or the particulars of this offensive activity. Iranian activists both in and outside the country seem to know almost nothing more about the case.
The sentences appear to be part of a trend. In May, a 47-year-old British-Iranian woman was sentenced to 20 years in jail for Facebook comments against the Supreme Leader and the Islamic Republic. Seven other Facebook users in the country were imprisoned at the same time.
Throughout its 35 years of existence, the Islamic Republic of Iran has not tolerated free expression or public gatherings beyond its control. Facebook offers some semblance of both of these things on an easy-to-use platform. What might Iranian citizens do if granted unbridled access to Facebook? Persecuting—and prosecuting—Facebook users is a way to instill fear in the population. The recent cases provide a chilling example of what could happen to Iranians who try to express their ideas.
The government’s relationship with Iran’s most popular social network is complicated, tenuous, and often appears to vacillate between love and hate. Despite the fact that Facebook is filtered in Iran, President Hassan Rouhani and many in his cabinet, particularly Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, are among the most savvy and popular Facebook users within Iran. All 2013 presidential candidates, approved by the highest authorities within Iran known as the Guardian Council, used Facebook to promote their campaigns. This tacit acceptance of the platform by those within the elite highlights two facts. The first is that filtering does not work within Iran. The Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance has verified this claim by stating he estimates about 4 million Iranians use Facebook. Second, Iran does not hate Facebook; rather Iran wants to control.
The Rouhani government has publicly emphasized its concern about the state of Iran’s Internet and has criticized long-standing filtering practices. But Rouhani’s actions have fallen short of his pledges when Facebook users and gadget bloggers are slapped with lengthy jail sentences. These decisions technically lie outside the control of the president’s authority and within the discretion of the judiciary and sometimes the supreme leader. Still, the president has a voice and can take a stand for those unjustly jailed. Yet he has remained silent.
Of course, there is a history to this. Facebook became a central tool during the 2009 protest movement, as millions of Iranians defied the regime and protested the controversial presidential election. Presidential candidate Mir-Hussein Mousavi, a leading figure in the Green Movement that followed the election, used Facebook to convey his message and communicate with his supporters. Fear of the popularity of reformist candidates like Mousavi on Facebook led to the filtering of the site a month prior to the 2009 election.
Four years after the Green Movement was repressed and its leaders placed under house arrest, Iranian authorities publicly denounced Facebook as an enemy of the Islamic Republic. This repression has had double-edged effects. While some netizens stopped blogging because they were jailed, others escaped the crackdowns and moved abroad, only to lose their relevance, as well as their online audience within the diaspora. This helped create the phenomenon know as the decline of bloggers. Facebook quickly emerged to fill this gap, as successful campaigns emerged, often functioning as a bridge between Iran and the diaspora. One popular example of this is “My Stealthy Freedom,” the Facebook page of London-based journalist Masih Alinejad who published a series of photos of herself posing in Iran’s public spaces without a hijab. This started a virtual mass movement, gaining her page more than 500,000 likes and garnering an influx of photos and comments from Iran. This Facebook page became an outlet for Iranian women to challenge the Islamic system’s 35 years of mandatory hijab.
Today, eight Facebook users face accusations of criminal activity against the establishment, but the details of their crimes remain unknown. There are redlines within the Islamic Republic about what constitutes online criminal content, but they are difficult to identify and seem to be forever in flux. This further perpetuates ambiguities over what constitutes an online crime, leaving netizens unknowingly vulnerable to arbitrary arrests and sometimes even killings, like that of Sattar Beheshti in 2012. The vague nature of these arrests creates an atmosphere of fear where authorities can accuse anyone of acting against the state, leaving citizens to guess what consequences they will face for speaking online.
In an interview with NBC’s David Gregory, Zarif called on the West for respect for the people of the Middle East, a reasonable request. In the same vein, we call on the Rouhani government to take a stand to respect Iranian citizens, and condemn the unjust arrests and punishments of its netizens.