By Reza Parchizadeh
Freedom of expression is virtually nonexistent in Iran. According to Reporters Without Borders’ 2013 Press Freedom Index, Iran stands at the 174th place – the 6th from the bottom – among the 179 countries assessed with regard to freedom of expression or lack thereof. That is why The UN Refugee Agency has dubbed Iran the “Middle East’s biggest prison for journalists.”
In the absence of freedom of expression in Iran, power has been concentrated in the hands of the Islamic Republic and its functionaries who hold a strict monopoly on the media. As such, they don’t allow others to freely express their opinions on political, social, cultural, environmental, etc. issues and problems, which has largely contributed to the creation of a monophonous and monolithic state in Iran. This in turn has forced many Iranian writers, journalists, critics, dissidents, and… to seek freedom of expression elsewhere, usually at a high price, in the face of many adversities and even at risk of losing their lives. In fact, it can be said that virtually all the Iranian public platforms that in one way or another oppose or criticize the regime in Iran are based overseas, especially in Europe and North America.
Among these platforms, the link-sharing websites, due to their giving the users more authority in determining the content of the website – a rather “democratic” feature obviously absent from the mainstream Iranian media, have been very popular. One of the more successful websites in that trend has been Balatarin. According to its Wikipedia page, “Balatarin (Persian: بالاترین, lit., highest) is a Persian language social and political link-sharing website aimed primarily at Iranian audiences. Balatarin does not generate news in-house but provides a hub where users can post links to webpages of their choice, vote on their relevance or significance, and post comments.” Though established long before that, Balatarin came to light since the fraudulent presidential elections of 2009 in Iran due to its independent citizen and journalist users’ sharing the news of and the announcements for the demonstrations against the election results.
However, as time went by and as the website gathered momentum and attracted lots of attention, Balatarin itself began to demonstrate repressive tendencies. In waves of purges, the accounts of the well-known and prestigious users (or rather, IDs) were suspended by the management on the grounds that they had breached Balatarin’s protocol; and the website in general took a more conservative turn with respect to allowing for any kind of content criticizing or opposing the Islamic Republic, so much so that even once a link considered – of course, by the management – to be offensive to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – because it had made fun of him – was removed from the website regardless of the fact that it had attained high rates by the users.
|The users complaining about Balatarin’s removing of a link whose
content had made fun of |
the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
A prestigious user, Sadeq Rahimi, who is an Iranian-Canadian clinician and blogger, has dramatically documented the most well-known of these ongoing purges on December 18, 2010 in his weblog, Cultural Logic, under the title “Coup in Balatarin”. As he recounts, “A few minutes ago, the Balatarin management, in an overwhelming and unprecedented crackdown, not only removed a great number of links, but also closed down the accounts of many users (unfortunately, like in the case of [mass] executions by the Islamic Republic, no mechanism exists [through which] to find out about the exact number of the victims of this Balatarin crackdown, but you can see a partial list below)…. It is to be added that the Balatarin management has also taken away the ability to send out invitations from the users. As is clear, Balatarin has carried out a complete coup. Those whose accounts were shut down were mostly popular users who, by sharing links with content against censorship, had protested against the recent trend of widespread censorship on Balatarin.” Rahimi then lists 302 users whose accounts were closed by the management. As it happens, he even put up an effort to encourage the users and other concerned parties to file a complaint against Balatarin with Reporters Without Borders, apparently with no success.
|Sadeq Rahimi’s blog: “Coup in Balatarin”|
After that clampdown, Balatarin issued a statement in which it announced that since Balatarin was not a real society, therefore it could not be governed by the norms of a real society, i.e. through democracy. The statement also paralleled the crackdown on Balatarin’s users with a teacher’s preemptive measure against naughty kids at school who would disturb other good kids. According to this statement, expelling two naughty kids from school, though not “just”, is a “logical” measure to take in order for the good kids to thrive. However, some naughty kids, i.e. users opposing censorship, were eventually allowed to return to the active life on Balatarin by literally “atoning” for their erratic behavior. Rahimi has explicitly stated this in his blog on the coup, and has provided the link to the statement by the Balatarin management asking the users for atonement. The users were directed to send “blank emails” to the management, indicating, according to the management’s description, that “I have calmed down and would like to be part of your community in calmness”.
Many users, however, just sank into silence or chose to go away forever. And this was only one in a string of mass crackdowns by Balatarin that would alienate the more prestigious and intellectual users who had contributed to the creation of the keenly critical aura that had made Balatarin an epicenter of political change. In hindsight, it can be seen that the continuous crackdowns by Balatarin on its independent users directly contributed to the decline of the Farsi blogsphere which in turn opened the way for the return of the regime’s discourse to and then its dominance on the net, because the critical independent bloggers who had thrived by posting their blogs to Balatarin would be denied an important popular public platform after each crackdown. As a result, some of the most qualitied weblogs that criticized the regime would gradually go down and eventually cease. Around six months after the first large-scale crackdown, one of the Balatarin old users called “Andisheh” (Intellect) drew a very tragic portrait of Balatarin and the Farsi blogsphere in a long elegy that itself can be the subject of a separate article.
As such, these days links with “substantial” critical content against the regime rarely get posted to Balatarin, and even if posted, hardly get a chance to become visible on the website due to employment of a selective process by the management that favors links with little or no criticism of the regime in general, or at most links that offer no substantial threat to the regime. Instead, the bulk of the content is now purportedly inclined towards supporting a particular faction of the Islamic Republic called “The Reformists” who have long penetrated the media in the West by mass-migrating to the Western countries.
As a matter of fact, a great host of Balatarin users have long been complaining about harsh censorship and slanted presentation of content in favor of the so-called Reformists, even in breach of Balatarin’s own internal regulations. Now, these Reformists are mainly the followers of the two former presidents Hashemi and Khatami who, though standing at some angle with respect to the Supreme Leader, still advocate the continuation of the same state structure in Iran, i.e. without any fundamental change towards democracy. The incumbent President, Hassan Rouhani, backed by both Hashemi and Khatami, can be said to constitute a somewhat more conservative continuation of the Reformists’ discourse.
As a result, it has been many times claimed, both by its users and others, that Balatarin, though receiving aid from organizations worldwide that have a concern for freedom of expression and democracy, and also benefiting from Google service in order to seemingly protect itself from the cyber-attacks by the Islamic Republic, in effect toes the line of the Islamic Republic (or at least a faction of it), the very political entity that it became known for opposing in the first place. Recently, an old user and a well-known political activist, Abbas Khosravi Farsani, has claimed that Balatarin sells or in whatever manner puts the users’ information at the disposal of the Islamic Republic. He has claimed that it was in fact his own incognito activities on Balatarin that led to his arrest a couple of years ago by the Islamic Republic’s Ministry of Intelligence.
Farsani, who by that time was one of the top doctoral students in Western Philosophy at University of Isfahan in Iran, used to be a prolific blogger and a political activist who worked incognito, using fake but well-known IDs. He was later forced to flee Iran as he was about to face a heavy sentence, and has since been living abroad as a political refugee. He says that when the agents of the Ministry raided his house, they even had his IP (Internet Protocol) with them, and showed it to him on the spot.
According to Farsani, as Balatarin was the only website that – as a mandatory measure – had access to his IP, and as some of the IDs that were then intimately in touch with him now appear to have top moderating responsibilities with strong pro-regime tendencies on Balatarin, Farsani claims that he is certain it was Balatarin that sold his information to the Intelligence Ministry, and that he sees this as his inalienable right to bring charges against Balatarin at an impartial court of justice in due time.
|Abbas Khosravi Farsani accusing Balatarin of collaborating with the Islamic Republic’s Ministry of Intelligence|
As a matter of fact, this is not the first time that Balatarin and some of its users are accused of being related in some way to the Ministry of Intelligence. In a most important instance, four years ago, when the upheaval of the post-presidential elections of 2009 was just beginning to recede, while some of the well-known Balatarin users were chit chatting under a typically mundane link, all of a sudden a heated argument about those events flares up. Amidst the argument, one of the users called “Fox”, apparently angry with another user called “Sashtyani”, reveals a secret about him that, according to Sashtyani, only an agent could have known. Another user, “Gomnamian”, brings this revelation to the attention of the other users. The argument goes like:
Fox [addressing Sashtyani]: I wanna ask you a question. Please tell me the truth. Not that it matters if you don’t, because there is no need for your answer. When you had gone to Turkey, weren’t you temporarily arrested by the Turkish police?
Sashtyani [addressing Fox]: I know something when I say you are an agent of the Ministry of Intelligence! When I was in Turkey, I was arrested for attempting to write graffiti on the wall of the Islamic Republic Embassy in Ankara, and I was later released with the intervention of the Dutch Embassy. Only the embassy staff and my lawyer would know about that incident. Not even my closest friends knew about it, so I conclude that you are an agent of the regime. I had many times brought this to the others’ attention, and I am happy now that you have at last exposed yourself.
This argument is immediately followed by Gomnamian’s comments. According to Gomnamian, that same Fox had indeed been behind the mass expulsion of the formerly mentioned three hundred and counting users by Balatarin by having started an incident that would lead to a split between the users and the management. Incidentally, again according to Gomnamian, the Balatarin management had supported Fox’s stance during that incident. It is to be mentioned that this Gomnamian would later reveal his identity. He is an Iranian blogger living in England, and he has introduced himself as Yashar Parsa.
|The crux of the argument between Fox & Sashtyani that Gomnamian brings to light in the comment sections of two separate links. Both links have been removed from Balatarin, but I had already turned them into PDF.|
In the end, the instances referenced in this article are only a handful from a great pool of references that claim Balatarin severely violates freedom of expression in favor of the Islamic Republic, either by continually suppressing and occasionally purging the critical users, or by mostly allowing for material that is hardly critical of the regime. Some of these, in addition to those already mentioned, include
“Balatarin Miracles: Are the policy-makers for the defense of democracy in Washington aware of the dramatic changes in the trends of Balatarin?”,
“Censorship in Balatarin: this time omitting the hot topic on the Persian section of Voice of America”,
“Are the Pictures of Jenifer Lopez and Lindsay Lohan More Important than the [Political] Analyses by Knodnevis?!”,
“Beware of the Poisonous Propaganda by the Regime and its Cyber Army”, “A Fatwa to Forbid Balatarin”, and
Nevertheless, the Balatarin management, though in charge of a public platform benefitting from humanitarian aid for propagating freedom of expression and democracy, has never shown any hint of public responsibility as to publicly and officially answer the charges brought against it. As a result, this piece has been penned in order to issue a warning to all those who care for the freedom of expression anywhere around the world and especially in Iran, and also to demonstrate that how public resources meant for good intentions can be used in achieving dubious ends when there is no informed and responsible supervision.
* Follow-up: A shorter version of my article was originally posted to Iranian.com (in English) on April 7, 2015. The article with Mr. Farsani’s claims had already attracted a lot of attention and generated a great deal of argument. When it was followed by the short version of my article, interest was renewed and controversy continued on a more heated level. However, as soon as my article appeared on the net, the article referencing Farsani’s claims disappeared, first from Khodnevis where it had been originally posted, and then from Balatarin where it had been shared.
A little later, the Khodnevis’ editor-in-chief, Nikahang Kowsar, issued a statement in which he ascribed the removal of that article to “insufficient evidence”, ironically after he had let it stand there on the net for around two months. Kowsar himself had many times accused Balatarin of censorship. A Farsi translation of my article was also silently – that is, without notifying me –removed from Iran Global, and the PDF that I had created from the article containing Farsani’s claims on Khodnevis and had uploaded on MediaFire was also taken down as a result of a Balatarin complaint. To top that all, my original article in English was removed from Iranian.com on 4/17/15.
Most recently, Farsani has written an inflammatory open letter to both Nikahang Kowsar and Mehdi Yahyanejad, the Khodnevis and Balatarin managers respectively, accusing them of conspiring against freedom of expression. In that letter, Farsani has revealed that the true reason behind the removal of the article containing his claims from Khodnevis and Kowsar’s taking a dramatic turn has been Yahyanejad’s contacting Kowsar and threatening him. As Farsani says, Yahyanejad had even attempted to contact him in private, but he had refused and replied that Yahyanejad had better state whatever he would in public.
It is to be noted that this article went through many reconsiderations. During the time of composition, a number of primary sources referenced in this article were strangely removed from the net. However, I was always one step ahead of the removers by making copies of those sources and placing them in safekeeping with various friends. Some of those copies have been used in this article while many more have been kept for a time when referencing them becomes an absolute necessity.