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For Iranian activists, Facebook is a double-edged sword

This statement was originally published on article19.org on 27 November 2014.

By Afsaneh Rigot

Since its founding in 2004, Facebook has become a radical new platform for social networking. In just over a decade, Facebook has gained more than 1.3 billion users internationally. As a social networking service it has surpassed most ethnic, social and class divisions; it is hard to come across someone who does not have a Facebook account and harder still to find someone who has never heard of the social networking platform.

Due to its popularity and capacity for connecting people from all over the world at minimal effort, Facebook has become an ideal political agitation tool. The 2009 post-election protests in Iran were among the first movements that actively used Facebook to relay information and gain momentum. The Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions of 2011 followed soon after. Facebook began to subtly self-brand as a tool for revolutionaries and dissident protests for countries under dictatorial rule.

Despite its uses, Facebook has attracted serious concerns from users over its questionable privacy issues. Although this complex topic is beyond the scope of this article, this issue has become increasingly relevant due to the increasing numbers of Iranian Facebook users that have been arrested by Iran's intelligence agency. This is not directly due to Facebook's own internal privacy problems but is rather an example of how external agencies are able to utilise it for intelligence gathering. Iran is a prime example of this.

In the past few years, Iran has become notorious for using services such as Facebook as an easy-to-use dissident mousetrap. Most recently, photographer Soheil Arabi was convicted on 30th August 2014 and sentenced to death for "insulting the Prophet of Islam" on Facebook. His sentence was upheld at the start of this week, according to Amnesty International.

The authorities claim that Arabi made "insulting" comments from eight different Facebook accounts. After his initial arrest in November 2013, he was coerced into making a "confession" whilst in solitary confinement.

Although Iran is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), whose Article 6(2) stipulates that the death penalty can be "imposed only for the most serious crimes", Article 262 of the Islamic Penal Code allows the death penalty to be applied if a person insults the Prophet of Islam. Regardless, as the International Campaign for Human Rights (ICHR) has noted, the ruling has been issued without regard for Iran's own Article 264 of the Islamic Penal Code which holds that "if a suspect merely claims in court that he said the insulting words in anger, in quoting someone, or by mistake, his death sentence will be converted to 74 lashes." The ICHR emphasises that this claim from the suspect is sufficient. Although Arabi had accepted the charges, he maintained throughout the trial that "he wrote the material without thinking and in poor psychological condition." Thus, it is clear that the Iranian judiciary does not adhere to its own laws, let alone international principles.

Similar Cases

In February 2014, Rouhollah Tavana was sentenced in relation to a video clip in which he allegedly insulted the Prophet Muhammad - for which he was later sentenced to death. And just two months ago Mohsen Amiraslani was executed for "insulting the prophet Jonah" under the same principles.

Facebook was again used as a method to file charges against Iranian users a few months ago, when eight Facebook commenters were sentenced to a combined 123 years in prison. As noted in [UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran] Ahmad Shaheed's most recent report, the charges were for "blasphemy, insulting the Supreme Leader and spreading propaganda against the system, among other charges, for criticizing government policies, supporting political protests and participating in social satire and other alleged activities on Facebook."

In 2012, Facebook was used to make a case against Yashar Khameneh for his part in the maintenance of a satirical Facebook page mocking the Shiite Muslim Imam Ali al-Naqi al-Hadi. Although he resided in Holland at the time, the Intelligence services arrested his father in Iran as a means of coercing out information – such as passwords and email accounts – from Mr Khameneh.

What can be done?


With over 4 million Facebook users in Iran alone - according to the Culture Minister of Iran - Iranians are becoming more and more cautious about their Facebook activities, and take measures such as adopting pseudonyms – especially if referring to religious figures. Yet even then the dangers exist.

With regards to Soheil Arabi, it is vital to continue campaigning for his case. From recent encounters with those that have either been imprisoned in the past, or have continued contact with those who are - including those who have faced Iran's death sentence - their release or reduction in sentence has largely been due to international outcry and persistent pressure on the Iranian state. We must continue to advocate and ensure that Soheil Arabi's name is heard on both online and offline platforms to remind Iran of its international and national obligations to protect freedom of expression. Whether he made such comments or not, Arabi was peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression. This must be recognised.

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