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RSF urges presidential candidates to defend free expression

RSF is appealing to candidates, such as reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi, to lift the ban on websites if elected
RSF is appealing to candidates, such as reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi, to lift the ban on websites if elected

Last week Iran temporarily blocked access to Facebook, prompting government critics to condemn the move as an attempt to silence the opposition before next month's presidential election.

Iranian authorities often block websites and blogs considered critical of the Islamic regime. According to The Associated Press, critics said the shutdown of Facebook forced Iranians to rely on state-run media for information, depriving the election debate of important independent voices.

For instance, one of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's chief rivals, reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, relied on Facebook to mobilise Iran's critical youth vote before the 12 June vote; his page on the social networking site has garnered more than 10,000 supporters.

"Every single media outlet that is seen as competition for Ahmadinejad is at risk of being closed," said Shahab Tabatabaei, a top aide of Mousavi told reporters. "Placing limits on the competition is the top priority of the government."

The blocking of Facebook was just the latest tactic Ahmadinejad used to curb support for his rivals and muzzle free expression, but as Reporters Without Borders (RSF) points out in a letter to all the presidential candidates, it's not new.

According to RSF, more than 100 news media have been censored since August 2005 and more than 100 journalists and bloggers have been arrested and prosecuted - with 13 of them still in jail.

In 2008 alone, 30 newspapers were suspended, 22 of them at the behest of the Commission for Press Authorisation and Surveillance - an offshoot of the culture and Islamic guidance ministry and the leading tool of media repression since Ahmadinejad became president, says RSF. Iran has for years been the Middle East country that jails the most journalists.

The next president must commit to the unconditional release of the 13 journalists and bloggers, says RSF, and lift the ban on newspapers and websites.

RSF also asks the next president "to reform the law in order to decriminalise press offences and guarantee freedom of expression regardless of language, religion or political views. Iran's current media legislation is exceptionally repressive," says the statement.

As an example, RSF points to article 24 of the Constitution, which says that "publications and newspapers are free to express all opinions except those that perturb the bases of Islam and public decency." The article was introduced with the declared aim of protecting the public from immoral content, but censorship was quickly extended to political news and information.

RSF is also urging the next president to end the state's monopoly of broadcasting and guarantee free access to news and information in Iran, where it is currently a crime to possess a satellite dish.

Presidential candidates urged to pledge to defend press freedom (RSF)

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