Online free speech has never been well received by the Iranian government, but now Tehran is just one step away from making blogging on certain topics into a capital crime.
Under a new bill approved by Iran's parliament, those convicted of "establishing weblogs and sites promoting corruption, prostitution and apostasy" will now be eligible to receive the death penalty. The International Freedom of Expression eXchange (“IFEX”), a free speech watchdog, writes that the bill passed on first reading by a vote of 180 to 29, with 10 abstentions. Under Iranian law, the Council of Guardians must now examine the bill to determine if it complies with Sharia and the Iranian constitution. If approved within ten days by a majority of the council, the bill will become law.
Agence France-Presse reported last week that the bill lists several crimes which are already punishable by death in Iran, including rape, armed robbery, and apostasy, in addition to the new criminalization of blogging.
Those convicted of these crimes "should be punished as 'mohareb' (enemy of God) and 'corrupt on the earth'," the text says.
Under Iranian law the standard punishments for these two crimes are "hanging, amputation of the right hand and then the left foot as well as exile".
Agence France-Presse added that the bill says the sentences for such crimes "cannot be commuted, suspended or changed".
Reporters Without Borders condemned the bill, calling it "horrifying," and warned that "passage of such a law, based on ill-defined concepts and giving judges a lot of room for interpretation, would have disastrous consequences for online freedom." Hamid Tehrani of Global Voices Advocacy wrote that such legislation shows Tehran "do[es] not only wish to filter blogs, but also to eliminate bloggers!" (Though to be fair, Tehrani is oversimplifying. The bill does not criminalize blogging itself, only blogs encouraging certain activities.)
Repression of bloggers is not new in Iran. Many Iranian bloggers, "at least two dozen" according to a 2005 BBC report, have been arrested by the government over the years. Several were tortured, according to the Committee to Protect Bloggers. One blogger, Mojtaba Saminejad, even faced the death penalty when he was charged with "insulting the prophets," a capital offense. Fortunately, Saminejad was eventually acquitted of the charge, though the government still imprisoned him for two years on other counts.
Despite government efforts to repress online activism, blogging continues to grow in popularity in Iran. According to Technorati's April 2007 State of the Live Web report, Iran's official, native language, Farsi, is the tenth most popular blogging language in the world.
And in their paper Mapping Iran's Online Public: Politics and Culture in the Persian Blogosphere, John Kelly and Bruce Etling of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society (note: the CMLP is also hosted at the Berkman Center) write that Iran's blogosphere is one of the largest in the world, consisting of some 60,000 Iranian blogs on topic ranging from politics and religion to pop culture and poetry. Even Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has a blog, although he doesn't seem to update it regularly. Kelly and Etling note, however, that although the Iranian blogosphere is diverse, secular and reformist blogs tend to be the most subject to being blocked by government censors.
(Arthur Bright is a second-year law student at the Boston University School of Law and a CMLP Legal Intern.)