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Rouhani’s Tweets Leave Users Wondering: Does Real Change Lie Ahead?

Screenshot of Hassan Rouhani's Twitter page.

Screenshot of Hassan Rouhani's Twitter page.

In recent months, Iranians who use Facebook and Twitter have begun to see a new, more intimate side of government officials who have opened accounts on these social media platforms. Simple messages like a shared personal photo of President Hassan Rouhani boarding his plane, or a tweet describing his intention to allow access to international information for all Iranians appear to be generating a more direct connection between officials and Iranians both at home and abroad.

Personal and quotidian posts from Foreign Minister Zarif have also garnered emotional responses. After Zarif wrote a Facebook update one day, complaining that he was stuck in traffic, a follower responded: “You are a source of pride. Every post we read gives us hope for the future.” Yet many are questioning the use of these two websites, which are filtered within Iran. In a widely shared twitter exchange, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey questioned the President’s decision to use the platform, given that it is inaccessible for other Iranians inside the country. Rouhani responded by restating his commitment to ending this form of censorship. However, he has yet to formally lay out his plans to unfilter social media, but many opportunities lie ahead.

It is widely known that segments of the government, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB)[1] access an unfiltered Internet. Most likely, Iran’s government officials are accessing social media using circumvention tools, or through an unfiltered Internet–either way, officials’ ability to use and access these platforms stands in violation of international human rights norms and Iran’s constitution.

While many agree it is unjust that Iranian politicians are using a tool that they deny to their citizens, this is still a positive exercise in free expression. These officials freely state their views on these social networks, and directly communicate with ordinary Iranians. Iranians don’t have to rely on state-dominated news sources, such as hardline newspapers like Kayhan to wait for these statements. Javad Zarif has nearly half a million likes on Facebook; President Rouhani’s English Twitter account has nearly 117, 000 followers (his Farsi account has roughly 30,000). While these accounts do a great deal to boost the popularity of these individuals with Iranians both inside and abroad, there is potential to utilize the popularity of these accounts to achieve greater goals. It is now time to take the next steps forward and give all Iranians the same online opportunities and privileges as these individuals.

In 2009, Iran's Committee Charged with Determining Offensive Content (CCDOC) decided to block both Facebook and Twitter. Following the contested 2009 Presidential elections, Iran’s Cyber Crime Law was developed and implemented, giving rise to the CCDOC, the centralized censorship body affiliated with the Ministry of Justice, that determines which websites are filtered.

Both the CCDOC and Iran’s former Minister of ICT have stated [fa] that using anti-filtering tools is illegal and punishable. Mehdi Akhavan Behabadi, the former Secretary of the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC) has also explained that membership in social networks is not a crime, but that bypassing the country’s filtering system is an offense according to the law.

Under this policy, ordinary Iranian people must commit a crime (of using a circumvention tool) in order to access their Facebook and Twitter accounts, while government officials face no such restrictions. Whether individuals like Zarif are using circumvention tools, or an unfiltered Internet, there is an inherent form inequality at play, both within Iranian law, and under international norms.

The theme of equality appears throughout the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, with the most notable example in Article 107, which states that the Supreme Leader, the highest form of authority within Iran, “is equal to every Iranian citizen before the law.” Article 7 of the UDHR similarly states, “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.” While the Islamic Republic of Iran is a non-abiding signatory of the UDHR, it is also signatory to the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, which similarly stipulates that all individuals are equal before the law, “without distinction between the ruler and the ruled.”

The recent activities of Iran’s new administration have directed us to this apparent inequality in the ability of Iranians to practice free expression and access to information. However, this new administration has also introduced new possibilities for change that must be seized upon. The President has gone as far as to mention that social media is not a threat to the nation, but a valuable opportunity to engage with people. In his speeches he has acknowledged the power of social media in gaining him support throughout his election, and it is now aiding his administration.

As of October 2013, the majority of CCDOC members are directly affiliated with the Rouhani administration. Six out of the thirteen members were appointed by Rouhani’s office, including representatives of the Ministry of ICT, Culture and Islamic Guidance, Justice, Science, Education, and a representative of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution. The ability to make this decision is within firm grasp of this new government. While Facebook and Twitter were briefly unfiltered during what was called a “technical glitch” in Iran’s filtering system on September 15, the Ministry of ICT has announced that the official decision to unfilter both websites is now under assessment. It is now time for this new administration to place their own rhetoric, and personal actions into governing practice, and unfilter Facebook and Twitter.


 

[1] This blogger gives readers step-by-step instructions on how to connect to the IRIB’s unfiltered Internet. http://gerash.wordpress.com/2011/04/02/filter/t

 

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