In Iran, Small Victories in the Anti-regime War Emerge

Although Iran's prisons are filled with people who 'insulted' the country's leadership, it is not totally out of touch with the public mood.

Screenshot of #draw4atena tweet for Iranian anti-regime cartoonist Atena Farghadani, 2016.
deviantart.com screenshot

Atena Farghadani just got out of jail and she is already criticizing the regime again.

“Thank you, Iranian leaders, for your mighty achievements. Congratulations on the growing number of executions, on the soaring unemployment rate and on the students who have to beg for charity... ,” thus wrote 29-year-old cartoonist Atena Farghadani, along with many more “congratulations” to that effect, in a Facebook post addressed to the leaders of the regime in Tehran, including President Hassan Rohani himself.

Farghadani is not about to keep her mouth shut, it seems. She posted this message not long after she was released from prison in May, after serving 18 months of her 12-year sentence. It’s unclear why the court of appeals cut her sentence so drastically: Was it the international pressure, or the internal pressure, largely from Iranian journalists and fellow cartoonists, that was brought to bear on her behalf?

Farghadani was imprisoned for disparaging the regime and its leaders after she drew a cartoon that depicted government ministers in animal form. Shortly after her conviction, a Twitter account called #draw4atena was started, on which Iranian cartoonists imitated her style with depictions of the government’s injustices. The site quickly went viral, partly because the British paper The Guardian was hosting the Twitter account.

In an interview with The Washington Post following her release, Farghadani spoke for the first time about the hardships she endured in prison, including being subjected to a virginity test and a pregnancy exam – confirming what even her family would not acknowledge “due to cultural and social restrictions,” as she put it. Upon her release she was put on four years’ probation, and any statement she makes or cartoon she publishes could mean a return to prison.

But with or without Farghadani, Iran’s prisons are in no danger of remaining empty. Just this month, well-known journalist Isa Saharkhiz was sentenced to three years for “insulting the Supreme Leader and propagating against the state.” Saharkhiz has a long history of fighting the regime: Before publishing his articles on the opposition Iranian website Rooz, which – before it was shut down for budget reasons – focused on the human rights situation in Iran, he edited a liberal newspaper and ran IRNA, the official Iranian news agency. He is a founder of the Society for the Defense of Press Freedom, and also served as deputy culture minister under Mohammad Khatami.

Saharkhiz is very familiar with prison, as he previously served a four-year term, from 2009-2013, for supporting Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s Green Movement. Saharkhiz had hoped to appoint civil rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh as his lawyer, but she herself is currently under investigation and therefore prohibited from serving on his defense team. Needless to say, she has also spent some years in prison.

Monitoring the Iranian regime’s harassment of journalists and human rights activists is a huge and largely frustrating effort. The abuse is so pervasive and systematic that it sometimes seems that another arrest hardly warrants a report, that it can’t have any effect. International human rights organizations keep filling out their reports and publishing their annual summaries, and thereby perhaps denting the world’s apathy a bit.

But still, within the country that prohibits the installation of satellite dishes or the use of Facebook and Twitter, there is some sensitivity to the public’s mood – which is one main explanation for the reduction in the length of prison sentences.

Last week, for instance, the Internet Police arrested 450 people who posted “anti-regime” messages or made immoral use of fashion videos. By law, the production and distribution of anything considered critical of the state or regime is prohibited. The public is not allowed to use broadband; it is reserved for state institutions and universities. Nonetheless, every government official seems to have at least a Twitter account, and many also use Facebook.

The estimated 50 million Iranian Internet users have also found many ways to get around the prohibitions. They use VPN to get access to blocked sites, and connect to broadband via authorized businesses. The country’s Internet users have recently been calling for the ban on social media to be lifted in order to be able to fire back at Saudis who are spreading information about Iranian crimes. “Iran is losing in the electronic war,” they say.

Like the government’s ban on satellite dishes, which hasn’t stopped nearly every household from putting up a dish despite the risk, the system’s battle against social media is just as Sisyphean – even President Rohani has acknowledged its failure. The regime’s cognizance of this underscores the importance of the human rights effort in Iran: Indeed, despite the difficulties, it has been shown that the regime in Tehran is sometimes responsive to public pressure.