Illegal suppression of the press in Iran is nothing new, as the government has been shutting down reformist papers for years. What is new, however, is the recent extension of the crackdown from newspapers to Internet sites and weblogs. The Internet, previously the sole refuge for activist, pro-reformist Iranians, is now just as vulnerable to political scrutiny as its print counterpart.
When reformist President Mohammed Khatami came into office in 1998, he expressed his respect for human rights and encouraged greater freedom of expression. But since the spring of 2000, Iranian authorities have shut down hundreds of pro-reformist publications. While Khatami has condemned these closures, he has said he is powerless to prevent them. Television and radio are also heavily censored.
Journalists and readers have thus resorted to the Internet--the only available source of independent news and information. The Internet has allowed writers to reach mass audiences at low monetary costs. Therefore it is not surprising that in the past four years, the number of Iranians using the Internet has soared from 250,000 to about 4.8 million, with as many as 60,000 to 100,000 Persian-language weblogs, approximately 10 percent of which are politically oriented.
When the conservative government first turned its repressive gaze toward the Internet, it blocked online reformist newspapers and websites. President Khatami insisted that the government was merely blocking pornographic sites that went against the tenets of Islam. Since then, authorities have moved to shutting down less obviously pro-reformist websites, mainly weblogs.
The targets of the Internet-based censorship point to a particularly disturbing development. Those who have been arrested have primarily been contributing journalists and technicians--mid-level activists, not the leaders under whose names the websites operate. It appears that the government prefers to deprive the leaders behind the dissident sites of their staffs rather than deal directly with these leaders.
The arrested journalists are being held on unclear or unrelated charges, often in undisclosed locations. They are not in touch with lawyers, and the courts involved are not following legal procedures. The few journalists that have been released have been forced to write confessions.
The chief of the Iranian Judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi, announced in October 2004 that new "cyber laws" were being drafted. …