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CAPSULE REPORT: Attacks on press freedom mount, Internet becoming only refuge, reports Freedom House

(Freedom House/IFEX) - The following is a 2 May 2007 Freedom House press release:

Mounting Attacks on Press Freedom in Iran, Internet Fast Becoming Only Refuge

May 2, 2007 - As press freedom in Iran continued to deteriorate in 2006, a striking contrast emerged between government efforts to restrict information and the public's attempts to access it, according to a report released today by Freedom House.

Freedom of the Press 2007, an annual survey of press freedom around the world, gave Iran one of the lowest scores worldwide. The survey reported that press freedom in Iran continued its decline in 2006 as the regime's conservative leaders cracked down on reformist publications and journalists through intimidation, closures and arrests. The public has responded to the shrinking space for free expression by increasingly turning to the Internet, as well as satellite television and radio. The government reacted in 2006 by escalating its efforts to filter the Internet and register individual websites, and continuing its arrest of bloggers and other online activists.

The narrative report and scores for press freedom in Iran are available online (English and Persian) ( see: http://www.freedomhouse.org/uploads/press_release/iran_FTP_07_engfarsi.pdf ). Charts, graphs and interactive maps are also available online ( see: http://freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=362 )

"Forums for free expression in Iran were already very limited, but last year the government began to target more seriously the Internet, the last bastion of free public dialogue in the country," said Jennifer Windsor, Executive Director of Freedom House. "Nonetheless, at least for now, Iranian citizens are still finding ways to gain unfiltered information about their government and the outside world."

In 2006, the Iranian government continued its crackdown of critical media outlets, which were once at the forefront of the country's reformist movement. The most significant closure of the year occurred in September, when the country's last remaining reformist newspaper, the Sharq daily, was shuttered for failing to heed orders from the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance.

Individual journalists known for their critical stance toward the government and advocacy of human rights were also targeted by the Office of the Supreme Leader and the Iranian judiciary, though the country's numerous legal restrictions and arrests also make self-censorship common. In one of the year's more prominent cases, intellectual Ramin Jahanbegloo was arrested in April on charges of conspiring to foment a "velvet revolution," and held in the infamous Evin prison until released in August.

Nevertheless, uncensored news did reach Iranians. Although satellite dishes are forbidden, an increasing number of people own them, allowing many Iranians throughout the country access to international news sources. Radio also allows a larger portion of the population to hear international broadcasts, including the popular Radio Farda and BBC Radio.

Internet usage also continued to increase, with more than seven million Iranians, or 10 percent of the population, accessing the Internet, and websites expressing opinions that the country's print media would never carry.

As a result, however, there was a hike in Internet filtering in the name of morality in 2006, followed by a series of new restrictions aimed at preserving Islamic culture. YouTube, the New York Times website, and the English version of Wikipedia were all blacklisted at the end of the year. Public use of high-speed Internet connections was banned, and a cabinet decision in November ordered all websites dealing with Iran to register with the authorities. The decision also officially outlawed all sites that "insult Islam" and monotheism in general, disseminate separatist ideologies, or publish false information.

"As Iran's press environment - once the region's most dynamic - becomes increasingly restricted, the Internet is the last remaining arena where citizens' natural thirst for expression and uncensored information can be satiated," said Mariam Memarsadeghi, Senior Program Manager for the Middle East. "As with so many other repressive regimes, the government's attempts to filter the Internet are now in a race with Iranians' resilient efforts to utilize evolving technology to speak their minds."

Several of Iran's roughly 100,000 bloggers and online activists were also actively targeted by the government. Arash Sigarchi, a blogger who actively campaigned for the promotion of diverse viewpoints through Internet journalism, was sentenced to three years in prison for "insulting the Supreme Leader" and publishing "propaganda against the regime." A number of other online activists were intimidated or received jail sentences for critical online publications during the year.

Iran ranks as Not Free in the 2007 edition of Freedom in the World, Freedom House's annual survey of political rights and civil liberties worldwide. The country received a rating of 6 (on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 as the lowest) for political rights and a 6 for civil liberties, and was given a downward trend arrow in 2007.

Freedom House publishes Gozaar, a monthly Persian/English online journal that seeks to help Iranian democrats fulfill the universal aspiration for freedom of expression by creating an inclusive and provocative space for the discussion of liberty ( see https://www.gozaar.org/ ).

Freedom House, an independent nongovernmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom around the world, has been monitoring political rights and civil liberties in Iran since 1972.

For more information on Iran, visit Freedom in the World 2007: Iran at: http://www.freedomhouse.org/uploads/press_release/iran_FIW_07.pdf

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