Sunday, March 15, 2009

Iran: What's behind Iran's decision to unblock Facebook?

By Golnaz Esfandiari - RFE - RL

Copyright (c) 2009. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

Farid Hashemi’s latest "status update" on his Facebook page says a lot about his state of mind.

“It’s better to be born as a dog in a democracy than to be a human in a dictatorship,” he writes.

Twenty-eight-year-old Hashemi is a senior member of Iran’s largest pro-reform student group, Daftar Tahkim Vahdat, which is a regular target of pressure from the state.

He is also one of the thousands of Iranians who use Facebook to stay in touch with friends, share photos, and exchange views and information.

Iranian authorities blocked the popular social networking site in 2006 as "illegal."

But in February, officials in Tehran took the surprising step of unblocking Facebook. Since then, the site's Iranian membership has been growing fast. Facebook is now the 10th most popular website in Iran.

New Avenues Of Discussion

Hashemi admits to being puzzled by the sudden reversal, which was accompanied by the unblocking of the YouTube video-sharing site. He says it is sometimes difficult to understand the reasoning behind actions by Iran’s decision makers.

Yet he’s happy about the move. Now, he says, the main challenge is to avoid becoming "addicted" to Facebook, which he says has opened new avenues for discussion of human rights and other political passions.

"Given the fact that I’m a political and social activist, I'm also attracted to human rights issues when I'm on Facebook," Hashemi says. "I join causes that support human rights and democracy, or those that protest against human rights violations in Iran."

Tehran's change of heart on Facebook is a bright spot in an otherwise grim new-media landscape. Iran remains one of the world's harshest censors of the Internet, blocking millions of websites with sexual, political, or news-related content. Reporters Without Borders says Iran leads the Middle East in Internet repression and is one of 12 countries classified as an "Internet enemy."

Iranian officials have offered no explanation for why they decided to restore access to Facebook -- or why they moved to block it in the first place.

Christophe Ginisty is the president of the French group Internet Without Borders, which promotes freedom of expression online. He says some governments with a history of Internet censorship choose to open some sites not to improve their image, but to gain a surreptitious toehold in an online community frequented by political opponents and activists.

"During election periods, as in the case of Iran, it allows the government to give the impression that it is offering more freedom," Ginisty says. "But that's absolutely not what's happening, because the first thing that happens following an opening is that filters and controls are established. It means that they reopen Facebook when they have the possibility to put people in place who can control it."

Hadi Nili is a Tehran-based journalist who specializes in social and information technology issues. He tells RFE/RL that the Iranian government may have opted to unblock Facebook as a way to better monitor the actions of journalists, who have flocked to Facebook in droves.

Nili also speculates that the unblocking of Facebook and YouTube could be a way for the government to win the support of young voters ahead of presidential elections in June.

In the long term, he says, many people don't expect the Facebook access will be permanent.

“The election is getting close, and the government is willing to take steps that are welcomed by the more modern segments of the society," Nili says. "One of these steps is the unblocking of websites that are popular."

Well-known Iranian satirist Ebrahim Nabavi, who is based in Belgium, has a different explanation about why Iran has decided to unblock Facebook.

“It’s not like we’re the only people who need Facebook to get in touch with people inside Iran," Nabavi says. "Mesbah Yazdi [an ultra hard-line ayatollah said to be the spiritual mentor of current President Mahmud Ahmadinejad] also needs the Internet to be in touch with the supporters of the kind of Islam he preaches in Italy, Britain, and elsewhere.

"Therefore, the current government needs to open up these doors for its own survival. And when those doors are open, we [critics] can enter as well."

While many use the social-networking site for entertainment purposes, Facebook is also increasingly being used to debate and promote political and human rights causes. In other countries where Facebook has been blocked, such as Syria, such political content is believed to have been the reason for the filtering.

Platform For Dialogue

Nabavi, who has launched a Facebook group to discuss reforms in Iran, says the networking site is a platform for Iranians inside and outside the country to engage in dialogue and learn tolerance.

"I had posted a poll asking, 'What words would you use to describe Iran?' There were about 150, 160 answers [within a day]," Nabavi says. "Another question was, ‘Why do you leave Iran, and why do you return?' It is important for us to understand that it’s not just my view that counts. The view of the person who has left Iran and doesn’t want to return is important, but so is the view of the person who has stayed in Iran and is trying hard, despite all the difficulties, to transform his country into a free society."

Iranians who use Facebook have created several political groups, including one that appears to support former President Mohammad Khatami for the June presidential vote, as well as one that is calling the election a "farce."

There are also groups calling for the release of political prisoners, and groups supporting the women’s movement in Iran.

In Tehran, Hashemi, the student activist -- who uses for his Facebook profile picture a photo of eight detained students from Amir Kabir University -- believes that in the short term, such outspoken Facebook debates are not likely to have any effect.

"It’s more aimed at showing dissatisfaction. It comes from a feeling of helplessness and anger. It doesn’t really have a concrete goal or a reachable goal," he says. "We use any opportunity to show that we are protesting against certain behaviors. It remains to be seen whether a potential movement would be possible through Facebook."
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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