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Women Online In Iran Brave Heavy Web Surveillance

Friday, April 9, 2010

Iranian female journalists are veterans of government closure of their print publications and early Internet ventures. Now they are prevailing against the region's most advanced censoring and monitoring software.

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Global Record for Jailed Journalists

Iran, which holds this year's global record for jailed journalists, had at least 35 behind bars at the start of April, down from 52 in March thanks to short term-furloughs, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the New York-based monitor of press freedom worldwide. Five are known to be women.

"Putting women in detention because they are calling for equality will only cause them to become even more active and inspire them to the same," Mohamed Abdel Dayem, program coordinator for the Middle East at the Committee to Protect Journalists, told Women's eNews.

Iran is the only country in this region to domestically manufacture sophisticated monitoring software and hardware to track online publications and filter out content the government considers a threat to national security, Dayem said.

Google, the California-based Internet technologies corporation, supported the Reporters Without Borders' award. Iran blocked the company's popular e-mail service, Gmail, as part of a broader cyber censorship crackdown in February.

On March 14, Teheran's Prosecutor Office announced the arrest of 30 people in connection to a U.S. cyber conspiracy. Most of the detainees, according to Human Rights Watch, were human rights activists, including advocates for women's rights and rights for regional minorities.

Ardalan says that foreign media attention carries risks for journalists on the ground. But international support--in the form of electronic signature campaigns or Web-hosting services--also helps content providers such as Gender Equality sidestep censorship and raise the profile of female activists and journalists.

"Social networking increases our security too by publishing our news," she said. "When they arrest somebody that it is unknown it is easy to jail them without a show from supporters."

Siemens and Nokia Singled Out

In March, Nobel-laureate and women's rights activist Shirin Ebadi singled out German engineering giant Siemens and Finnish telecoms company Nokia for supplying Iran with the dangerous know-how.

"They send the Iranian state software and technology that it can use to monitor mobile telephone calls and text messages," she told France Culture Radio.

The European Parliament judged the companies "instrumental in the persecution and arrest of Iranian dissidents" in a February resolution that criticized Nokia Siemens Networks for equipping the Iranian government with censorship and surveillance tools. The companies have denied the charges.

At least 5,000 men and women have been arrested since Iran's contested election last summer, according to Iran's Equality Now Web site, including many members of the One Million Signatures Campaign.

The government's crackdown on information since the rise of the pro-democracy movement has been so severe that international watchdog organizations struggle to keep track of who has been arrested and why, especially since few international reporters are allowed inside the country and local sources are under constant pressure from security forces.

"It's a revolving door," Farez Sanai, Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch in New York, told Women's eNews. "It is very common for individuals to be picked up, put in detention, not know what the charges are and then be released several days or weeks later."

Dominique Soguel is Women's eNews' Arabic editor.

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