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Iran’s virtual iron curtain

In Iran in November 2019 the whole of the Internet was shut down. 83 million people were suddenly isolated from the world. This was the regime’s answer to the people’s protest against rising petrol prices. In this text, written by an anonymous Iranian writer, we read five stories about the events in the country. “Now the Islamic Republic knows what it is doing. If it wants to carry out a massacre of political prisoners in the same way as in the ‘80s, it will shut down the internet,” says one person.

Credits Text: Anonymous Translation from Persian: Margo Munro Kerr February 18 2020

Some details (such as names of people and places) have been changed to preserve anonymity.

The first story

Ten years ago, a young girl was killed before Farzad’s eyes. It was June 2009, in a Tehran back-alley. He and his friends filmed what happened. Despite heavy internet filtering and slow connection, they managed to get the film to influential international news agencies. Within a few days, that girl and some others who were killed in the same protests were transformed into symbols of protest against the last theocratic dictatorship in the world. That short clip of the young girl’s murder at the hands of government agents led to further protest among citizens and politicians in other countries against the ruling regime in Iran.

Farzad, who is now living as a refugee in Iraqi Kurdistan, says: “The violence in that image was so bitter and horrifying, and the girl’s subjugation in the moment of death aroused such compassion, that writers and poets wrote a great deal about her and others who were killed. Internet censorship and restrictions against certain websites didn’t stop people around the world from accessing the film. In fact, it may even have increased the film’s influence, because almost everyone knew that the video had reached them with difficulty, and at great risk.”

At that time (in 2009), internet filtering was not as pervasive as it is today. The Iranian government had reduced internet speed and blocked access to practically all social media sites. I ask him how he felt about sharing the video.

“For two days, I felt numb. I didn’t feel anything at all, not even fear or grief. But after two days, when I got access to the internet again, I saw what had happened after I shared the video. I saw people’s grief and anger, both in Iran and around the world, and I saw that the girl who had been killed in a side-street in obscurity had become a symbol of the cause. I sat in the corner of my room and cried. Later I realised that if others hadn’t seen what happened I would surely have felt that I was also to blame for her death. Because, if no one could see her tragedy, I would have felt that I hadn’t done anything for her.”

“If there wasn’t any internet, what then? What if there wasn’t such widespread internet censorship?”

“Censorship just slows down access to information. It’s pointless. People could still access the videos and photos that I and others shared. We would have done this at any cost. But if there had been no internet at all, then that’s a different story. During the recent fuel protests, which started on November the 15th 2019, the government shut down the internet completely. I saw the effect. News agencies didn’t report the protests. Authorities in other countries condemned the regime’s violence and killing both little and late. It was as if the world had become dependent on information coming from the internet, and unless there was a mountain of images and stories, no one would do anything.

“The global reaction to the protests in 2019 reminded me of the massacre of left-wing prisoners in 1988 (and throughout the ‘80s) in the Islamic Republic’s prisons. At that time too, there was no internet. It took years even for people in Iran to believe that such a massacre had occurred. It took decades for people outside Iran to accept that the Islamic Republic had killed several thousand prisoners.

“Now, the Islamic Republic knows what it is doing. If it wants to carry out a massacre of political prisoners in the same way as in the ‘80s, it will shut down the internet.”

The second story

During the November 2019 protests, the Iranian regime shut off access to the internet so that news of the suppression of the protests would not spread to the rest of the world. Between two hundred to fifteen hundred people were killed, almost five thousand wounded, and around seven thousand arrested during the protests.

Maryam is a writer who has recently published her fifth novel. She is a member of an organisation called “Tehran Story-Writers’ Guild”. A few days after the start of the protests and the internet shut-down, the Tehran Story-Writers’ Guild released a short statement:

“Lack of access to the internet and social media, and of free circulation of information … has caused much injury to the spirits, minds, and normal way of life of all people, and of us as writers … As the shutdown last week was concurrent with … Book Day [a day on which bookshops across Iran have sales], this organisation and its members lost the opportunity to advertise: whether to spread information; organise gatherings; or have any close interactions with readers or those in the publishing industry …. The Tehran Story-writers Guild hopes that this problem will cease as soon as possible and that writers will not witness such a terrible situation again in the future.”

Maryam supported this statement at first, but later withdrew her support. She says, “One of the reasons was that just after the shutdown people had suddenly started sharing video after video of killings. People were dying by the handful, but we were just worried about selling our books. That statement was in complete opposition to my beliefs, in complete opposition to what I was writing. I was horrified; I had also become part of the system which closed its eyes on people’s suffering.

“I feel like even when I withdrew my support from the statement, it was useless. I feel like, when I spoke up, it didn’t help, and when I stayed quiet, it didn’t help. The people were being suppressed, and writers like me were dead too because we didn’t do anything at all.”

The third story

Amir is a novelist, computer games designer, and network specialist. At first, I was just going to talk to him about the internet, access restrictions, and the influence of those restrictions on his work. Right at the beginning of our conversations the November 2019 protests started and Amir’s internet connection was cut off.

In those chaotic days, he listened to the Iranian news, used all available resources, and with a great deal of effort was able to find out how to circumvent the internet filters and send me this short message:

“I’m a computer network specialist, and it took me a day of work and a thousand technical twists and turns to access the internet. You can be sure that normal people have no access.” A few hours later he wrote: “The oppression is much worse than you imagine. I’m sure the pictures you have can’t even show a hundredth of what is happening.”

After that, he couldn’t get in touch until the government lifted the restrictions around ten days later. He didn’t want to talk any more. He just said it was like he was suffering from PTSD, not because of not being connected to the internet but because of what he had seen and because of “the things I couldn’t do”.

I asked him if he would like to write about the experience one day.

He replied, “I don’t know. In my first book I took inspiration from the dictatorial atmosphere of the Islamic Republic and created a similar atmosphere in my book. But now my mind is so crushed that I don’t know what to do at all. It’s as if I’m waiting, with the majority of people around me, for an explosion; we’re waiting for the end-point of this situation to become clear, to understand the scale of the oppression for which it was necessary to cut off eighty million people from the rest of the world. When you’re in the middle of a traumatic experience, when at any moment your world might be turned upside down, even thinking about writing is hard.”

The fourth story

Mehdi is a writer who supports the Islamic Republic. He follows me on Facebook. During the internet shutdown, he was not one of the handful of pro-Islamic Republic writers who had access to the internet (many such journalists and activists who were close to the regime didn’t have their internet connection cut off). When access to the internet was restored, he wrote on Facebook “God has freed the internet”. The inspiration for this statement came from a famous piece of Islamic Republic propaganda during the eight-year war with Iraq while Saddam Hussein was in power. At that time, when Iranian forces took back the city of Khorramshahr in the Arab part of Iran from Iraqi forces, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic said, “God has freed Khorramshahr”.

I asked him if he was aware that, in that phrase, God has freed Khorramshahr from forces of evil, and if he therefore accepted that the internet was cut off by forces of evil, and that God’s interference was needed to open it up again. I also asked him what his opinion was, as a writer, of the images that were shared of the protests after the “liberation of the internet”.

He didn’t answer and he doesn’t search for me any more on Facebook.

Those without stories

It seems as though the majority of individuals and organisations active in global politics and culture were silent with respect to the Iranian people. I imagine that this occurred to a certain extent because those people’s stories did not reach them. In a very short period, the world has become so accustomed to the internet that, as the Persian saying goes, “no news means good news”. Another phrase that is also common among Iranians is: “out of sight, out of mind”.

Whenever the internet is reconnected, and news reaches the outside world, it is yesterday’s news which no-one pays any attention to. Even if it involves the death of several hundred people. The only news worth reading is today’s breaking news.

The people of Iran need their stories to be heard. When someone can’t tell their story, just as Iranians in the ‘80s and this year couldn’t, trouble is at hand.

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