Bloggers strike first

Iran -

The response to President Bush's State of the Union address was immediate. An e-mail was circulated among prominent technology-savvy Iranians. It announced the launch of Iranians for Peace: "a weblog dedicated to the Iranian people who are against a military attack on Iran" (http://nowarforiran.blogspot.com). Here and on similar sites are the thoughts of Iranians, written in English, as they contemplate the latest threats by the US.

"The news of war frightens me. I remember the years that I was a schoolchild, when my country was included in a bloody war with Iraq. Nothing is worse than living in fear," one Iranian, under the pseudonym "No War", has written. He goes on to explain Iranians' complex relationship with the government and their patriotism. "I just want to warn the US or any other country that Iranians are one of the most patriotic nations." Much as they loathe their current leaders, young Iranians, it seems, do not want Bush to invade.

Using the internet as a means of expression is nothing new in Iran. Since the first Iranian weblog launched in 2001, the number of sites has boomed. Farsi is now the fourth most widely used language on weblogs (though many Iranian sites are written in English). Three-quarters of Iran's population is under the age of 35, and the failure of President Khatami to reform Iran has left young people fearful, cynical and jobless. In addition, in the past five years the government has closed down more than 100 print publications, making the internet one of the few havens left for liberal journalists and young people. Blog topics have ranged widely: from everyday life through political discussion to Friday-prayer alternative events. Blogs have given women, especially, a voice.

However, the fundamentalist authorities are clamping down. On 20 April 2003, Sina Motallebi, a journalist, became the first blogger to be arrested, followed in the autumn of 2004 by 20 more. On 5 January this year, Tehran's chief prosecutor ordered major internet service providers to filter PersianBlog and other blogging service websites. Now many bloggers cannot update their sites easily.

Iran is using US-made software, SmartFilter, to censor "inappropriate" websites, and this may not be the only role the US is playing. This month, the Christian Science Monitor reported that The Planet, a web-hosting firm based in Dallas, had abruptly terminated its contract with the Iranian Students' News Agency and other web publishers. The reformist presidential adviser Mohammad Ali Abtahi, who is also a blogger, suggested the US government was behind the move. If true, this scenario may suit both Washington and Tehran: stifling Iranian voices internationally and enabling the authorities to control the reality to their advantage.

For the latest news on Iranian web censorship, go to Stop Censoring Us (http://www.stop.censoring.us).