Iran: Amnesty International concerned at increasing censorship of websites and other media

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300 new sites censored every day; visits to websites used as evidence against activist

Amnesty International today (7 December) expressed concern at the rising tide of censorship in Iran and the government’s continuing harassment of human rights defenders.

Internet sites are being blocked, newspapers and websites closed, books banned and journalists and bloggers arrested. Amnesty is deeply worried about the Iranian authorities’ continuing and increasing restriction of the right to freedom of expression.

In September 2006, according to the government-owned Information Technology Company (ITC), more than ten million Internet sites were being filtered by the relevant authorities, including by the judiciary, the committee for identifying unauthorised websites and the filtering system database. Around “200 – 300 immoral and filter-busting websites per day” were being newly filtered.

Most recently, popular sites such as Wikepedia, YouTube and Amazon.com have been blocked, permanently or temporarily, as part of a growing trend of restriction of sites which are deemed “immoral or against the principles of Islam”. Many sites belonging to domestic and foreign news organisations, political organisations and those carrying information about human rights have been blocked. For example, the Tehran-based Kurdish Human Rights Organisation’s site, and the Meydaan site which carries information about Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights’s human rights, including a campaign launched recently aimed at abolishing execution by stoning in Iran, have both been blocked.

Amnesty International UK Campaigns Director Tim Hancock said:

“It is sad that the Iranian authorities are so afraid of this that they deny Iranian people access to information that you and I can find at the click of a mouse.

“More sinister still are arrests of people who send information about human rights out of Iran, or who write about the situation in the country. Amnesty is appealing for the release of blogger Kianoosh Sanjari, arrested in October and still at risk of torture.”

Amnesty is asking people to write to the Iranian authorities demanding the release of Kianossh Sanjari, as part of its irrepressible.info campaign against internet repression worldwide. See www.amnesty.org.uk/irrepressible for more details.

Human rights activists and others have also faced interrogation and charges related to their accessing of Internet sites abroad, or their sending or receiving information by e-mail. Mehdi (Oxtay) Babaei Ajabshir, an Iranian Azerbaijani, was arrested in July 2006 prior to his planned attendance of an annual Iranian Azerbaijani cultural gathering, and sentenced in September to six months of imprisonment for “membership of illegal opposition groups aimed at harming national security”. The evidence against him included “sen[ding] several e-mails to the Gamoh website to protest, as he alleges, their action of preparing a new flag. In addition he visited other ethnic nationalist websites and forwarded some of their items to his friends”.

The Iranian authorities’ increasing attempts to control the use of the Internet have been reflected in official statements. For example, in May 2006, Reza Rashidi Mehrabadi, managing director of the ITC, announced that Iran’s nationwide filtering database, which can be used to block access to Internet sites, would shortly begin work. He was reported as stating that his company would be able to identify every Internet user in the country and log their access to Internet sites.

In October, the telecommunications regulator placed restrictions on online speeds to 128 kilobits per second and banned Internet service providers from offering fast broadband packages - restricting the ability of Iranians to download information from the Internet. This order was protested by members of the Majles (Iran’s parliament). In late November it was reported that all websites dealing with Iran would be required to register with the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance within the next two months, a move likely to lead to the future closure of websites that have not registered.

This year has also seen a continuing clampdown on other mass media. The authorities have continued to shut down newspapers, and their editors and journalists have been arrested or summoned to court on vague charges such as “propaganda against the system” or “insulting the leadership”. Others who have travelled abroad have been harassed on their return. In November, for example, a group of journalists who had attended a training seminar in the Netherlands arranged by a Dutch NGO and the Iranian Journalists Association were detained and interrogated for three hours at Tehran airport on their return, before being released. An increasing number of books, including some for which permission to publish had previously been granted, have been banned. In July, the authorities announced a crackdown on the private use of satellite receiving dishes, which, although illegal, have been widely used in Iran in recent years. Thousands of dishes are reported to have been confiscated.

Amnesty International is calling on the Iranian authorities to release all prisoners of conscience, including detained bloggers such as Arash Sigarchi and Kianoosh Sanjari, immediately and unconditionally and to remove all restrictions on the operation and usage of the Internet that violate the right to freedom of expression. They should also end practices such as censorship, monitoring and surveillance that do not conform with Iran’s international obligations. Iran should also review its legislation to ensure that ambiguous provisions - such as those relating to national security, propaganda, or insulting state officials - are clearly defined or removed, to ensure that they cannot be applied in an arbitrary manner to stifle legitimate dissent, debate, opposition and freedom of expression.

Find out more about our Irrepressible.info campaign /p>

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