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Iran's tech bloggers caught in the political crossfire

Five bloggers who activists say were 'apolitical' have been imprisoned for 150 days

Narenji was the Iranian version of Mashable or Gizmodo, a blog popular in Iran for its reviews of things like Android and iPhone apps but one that never dipped its toes into the political — dangerous waters in Iran’s ultra-censored, tightly monitored blogosphere. So when the seven bloggers behind Narenji were thrown in jail by a local wing of Iran’s right-wing Revolutionary Guard on Dec. 3, it took many by surprise. Even in a country like Iran, which Freedom House has called the “least free” country in the world, the jailings made little sense.

On Saturday, five Narenji bloggers (two have since been released, pending a trial) will have spent 150 days in jail on charges that they collaborated "on projects with foreign-residing anti-revolutionaries," specifically the BBC Persian Service and activist groups who led Iran’s 2009 “Green Revolution” in the wake of a disputed election that saw hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad re-elected.

In a televised press conference in January, Ali Tavakoli, head of the Iranian Judiciary in the city of Kerman, said the “gang of enemy cyber activists” had received funding from London and that the group’s manager had traveled to Malaysia, India and Afghanistan under the pretense of charitable work “funded by British intelligence.” They had confessed to all charges, Tavakoli said.

But the outlawed BBC Persian Service, which says it has no personnel in Iran, denies any affiliation with the Narenji detainees, and called any “confessions” to that effect “baseless, false and pre-planned.” A source close to the bloggers told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, which has monitored the case closely, that Narenji was never involved in any activism, only that they worked in “a field where in order to pursue the latest developments and news, the professionals have to be in constant contact with the world outside.”

On the one hand, the Narenji bloggers could be casualties of an out-of-touch conservative contingent in isolated Iran, a country where technological expertise and interaction with foreigners are viewed with mistrust and often conflated with political dissidence.

"If you think of this from the eyes of an authoritarian regime, a startup doesn’t look that different from an activist cell,” said Danny O’Brien, the international director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The Internet is politicized in Iran. It’s identified with reformers, sometimes radical ones — especially to groups like the Revolutionary Guard.”

But the Narenji case might also underline the push and pull of Iran’s Internet censorship landscape. Some say these apparently apolitical bloggers are caught in the political crossfire between a reform-minded president, who has scaled back Iran’s nuclear program and initiated a thaw with the West, and a right-wing contingent led by the country’s supreme leader, the ultra-conservative Ayatollah Khamanei.

“There’s a sort of internal turf war that’s gone on for years about who should be in charge of the Internet and overseeing technology, which is not just a battle between radicals and moderates, it’s between different sectors of the Iranian administration itself,” said O’Brien.

Last year, Iranians cast their votes for reform, electing moderate Hassan Rouhani, who has indicated he might support loosening restrictions on Internet use in Iran. Rouhani and several of his ministers have made waves since assuming office by embracing Twitter, which has been blocked for regular Iranians since it was used to mobilize unrest after the 2009 presidential election. Islamic Guidance Minister Ali Jannati went so far as to suggest the bans are futile since they are so easily circumvented, saying that Iran could no longer “restrict technology’s advance under the pretext of protecting Islamic values.”

But whatever Rouhani and Jannati might like to see happen in Iran, they are up against a powerful conservative contingent in Iran who feel unrestricted access to information conflicts with the values of the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Conservatives lashed out at Jannati’s comments and said there were no plans to lift the bans.

Since Rouhani came to power, activists say Internet freedom has actually been eroded and that Iran is continuing to pursue its goal of a closed, national intranet — a joint venture with China, Tehran announced in January. Popular messaging apps like Viber and WhatsApp and photo-sharing platform Instagram have been blocked since the moderate president was elected. “Iranians are facing a different reality from the one they were promised,” Melissa Etehad, an Iran researcher, wrote in an op-ed for Al Jazeera last month.

Though little is known about who makes the decisions to censor what content online or the extent of Iran’s cyber espionage on the country’s Internet users, it is known that the president has little authority over Internet policy. Both the newly created Cyber Police and the Revolutionary Guard, the two groups that crack down on accused online dissidents like the Narenji bloggers, fall outside Rouhani’s authority.

"Iranian society is not black and white; there are a lot of gray zones,” said Fred Petrossian, an Internet researcher and the online editor-in-chief of Persian-language Radio Farda. “There are people who really consider Internet the enemy and want it strictly controlled, but there are others who think that’s not possible, and for economic reasons you should get involved and reshape it for their own benefit.”

The day after the Narenji bloggers were arrested, Rouhani announced — in a tweet, no less — a $1 billion investment in his country’s “knowledge economy,” which many hope will incubate Iran’s tech sector. Online entrepreneurship has survived despite international sanctions on Iran and constant fears that one’s online interactions with the outside world could spur repercussions if Iranian intelligence catches wind.

The Narenji arrests have only exacerbated that anxiety, and could serve to scare away companies that are reluctant to offer Iranians websites or even outsource web-based work for fear of breaching the U.S. sanctions regime.

“In some ways, the Narenji bloggers are a model for how Iran wants to present itself as an advanced high-tech economy with opportunities for young, ambitious Iranians. But at the same time, the more extreme, conservative wing of the Iranian government wants to place strong controls to prevent the Internet from turning into a disruptive medium,” said O’Brien.

There is an online petition directed at the U.N. calling for their release, and activists like Petrossian are working to raise awareness. But, Petrossian said, “no one can pressure the Revolutionary Guard, it’s not possible.”

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