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Iranian blogger's death in prison shows regime's desperation to suppress public opposition

Amir A. Fakhravar [Director of International Affairs, Council for a Democratic Iran]: ""Iran, a Nation of Bloggers" is the name of a short animated film that I saw a few days ago. In only 100 seconds, Mr. Aaron pointed out a subject that has remained out of sight amid the commotions over Iran's nuclear program - the power of the Iranian youth and the bloggers of today's Iran. On March 18, 2009, the news of the killing of a young blogger, Omid Reza MirSayafi, in the infamous Evin prison resonated throughout the world media.

The courts in Iran had sentenced him to two years in prison and had convicted him for "insulting Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei." The death of MirSayafi drew the world's attention to Iranian bloggers. His body was buried the following day so as to prevent any kind of post mortem medical examination. Words of support and praise for the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic and the government plus the usual words of contempt for the regime's opposition groups were then printed in his weblog.

Now, the question is when did blogging start in Iran and when did it reach its height. In April 2000, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during a public speech in Tehran's Mossala, ordered the closing down the publications that criticized his policies. He named them "the enemy's headquarters"! Thus, 100 publications were shut down immediately, thousands of weblogs popped up and replaced them.

In February of 2000, the Financial Times published an in-depth article on the Iranian bloggers. According to the article, the main reason young Iranians turn to writing in weblogs is a combination of the lack of freedom of speech and the staggering unemployment rate that has given this generation all the time in the world to contemplate different issues. The statistics are baffling. Iran has a population of 70 million, of which 15 million are subscribed to Internet providers. But the number of web log writers is amazingly high. According to "Reporters without Borders" that ranks countries in relation to freedom of press, Iran stands at number 166 out of 169, with only Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea lagging behind. On the other hand, Iran ranks very high in having the most bloggers, second only to China.

In today's Iran, there are more than 3 million bloggers and this number increases every day. Young Iranians, who face many hindrances from the government, even in the most private aspects of their personal lives, break all forbidden barriers on their weblogs and write about everything you can imagine. Blogging in Iran is both a means for emotional release for reducing social, political, cultural and financial pressures and a relatively safe podium for criticizing the government's policies. On the other side, many of the regime's supporters create their own weblogs, supporting the regime, in an effort to offset the effects of the opposition's web logs and this is one of their tools in confronting the youth that seeks freedom.

In Iran, the connection speed has been reduced to the lowest level possible so that access to the free world will become all the more difficult for the young generation. The government regularly filters anti-government weblogs along with websites such as Facebook, YouTube and any website that contains what they consider "pornographic contents." This includes many fashion websites. It is virtually impossible for the government to completely cut off access to the Internet for doing so will cause huge problems, not to mention the fact that there are numerous applications of the Internet that they are using themselves. In addition, the current leadership's young children who are the main proponents of their revolutionary fathers ironically pay more attention to and engage the modern world.

The most famous internet servers that are inconspicuously controlled by the secret service are "Blogfa" and "Persian Blog." Each contains over a million weblogs. "Blogfa" started its operations through Canadian servers in December 2004 and has been the preferred site by far since 2005. It is the largest provider of weblogs among all Iranian sites. Of course, there are rumors that the 30 year old director of "Blogfa", Alireza Shirazi, is under pressure from the secret service for his cooperation in identifying anti-government bloggers.

Nahid Kalhor, a 23 year old biology major in Qum University and one of the leaders of the "Confederation of Iranian Students", was arrested in June 2008 through this very cooperation of the management of "Blogfa" with the secret service in providing them with her personal information that was cached in her weblog. The "Confederation of Iranian Students" is the biggest student group opposing the clerics' regime and is active throughout the world. Weblogs are the main means of communication between members and the leadership. Nahid's weblog titled "Freedom is not Free" is being controlled by the secret service since her arrest. With the support of Amnesty International, Nahid was temporarily released from prison and disappeared a few days later. To date, no one knows of her whereabouts.

For a few years now, millions of young bloggers have brought forth a big dilemma for the mullahs of how to suppress the weblogs and, now, the death of a blogger in prison marks a new wave of violent reaction against the bloggers by the Islamic Republic. However, the speed with which Iranian weblogs are growing raises the hope and prospect that, with the help of weblogs and satellite media, the young generation will have the means for establishing a "free and democratic Iran" in a revolution yet to come."

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