In Box

Muckraking Mullahs

For years, getting out a dissenting message amid tight government censorship was a struggle for the political dissidents and harried religious mullahs of Iran. But the Internet has made the task much easier. Consider the case of Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, a high-ranking clergyman who for years was being groomed to succeed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. ...

For years, getting out a dissenting message amid tight government censorship was a struggle for the political dissidents and harried religious mullahs of Iran. But the Internet has made the task much easier.

Consider the case of Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, a high-ranking clergyman who for years was being groomed to succeed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. After a row with Khomeini in 1989 and an official fall from grace, Montazeri set up a controversial Web site, www.montazeri.com. Today, the site attracts more than 10,000 visitors a week and makes available for download his memoirs, to the ire of conservative clerics.

And Montazeri isn’t alone. Reza Pahlavi, son of a former shah, runs a U.S.-based site that advocates democratic reforms (www.rezapahlavi.org), which last year received 30 million hits. Well-known Iranian political satirist Hadi Khorsandi continues to rake muck at www.hadisara.com. Even the Communist Party is using the Net for political leverage (see, for example, www.tudehpartyiran.org).

The Iranian government, of course, faces a dilemma in the Web. It has already muffled more than 50 print publications. But it’s still deciding how to deal with the Net. Iran has an estimated 500,000 to 1.5 million Internet users. For the government, censorship by filtering content is one option. Iranian medical students, for example, are denied access to sites dealing with anatomy. Cyberdeception is another strategy. In 2000, the government tried to redirect visitors to Montazeri’s homepage to the militant group Mojahedin-e Khalq (www.iran.mojahedin.org). The government also built a propaganda site with a similar, now-defunct address, http://www.montazery.com. Both efforts failed.

But Iran’s most important cabinet minister with decision-making power over technology, Ahmad Motamedi, supports more or less unbridled Internet access, despite the Supreme Council for the Cultural Revolution’s more conservative approach. "Presently, developed countries readily bear the heavy costs to provide their citizens with the means to access advanced information. This is also the general conviction among officialdom in Iran because the time will soon come when humans cannot survive without [the] Internet," Motamedi said recently.

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