Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has surprised western observers that his country should embrace the Internet rather than censoring it.
Rouhani, a comparative moderate elected last year, said trying to win the battle for public influence by restricting the internet was like bringing a wooden sword to a gunfight.
The statement moves Rouhani away from rival conservative clerics, some close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. They think that the best way to preserve the power of the Shi’ite Muslim clergy is to censor everything.
The social media policy of predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was to round up bloggers and tighten online controls in an eight-year term. He was especially upset after protesters used social media to organise mass street demonstrations in 2009 and he had to kill a few of them.
Rouhani told the official IRNA news agency that Iran should see the Internet as an opportunity. We must recognize our citizens’ right to connect to the World Wide Web.
“Why are we so shaky? Why have we cowered in a corner, grabbing onto a shield and a wooden sword, lest we take a bullet in this culture war?” he said in his weekend speech. He said that even if there was an onslaught, which there is, the way to face it is via modern means, not passive and cowardly methods.
Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, secretary of a state committee tasked with monitoring and filtering sites, last year called Facebook a US espionage project.
Rouhani compared the effort to restrict access to the internet to an earlier, failed attempt to combat the spread of satellite television.
He noted that the first obsession was video – how to keep it out of our youth’s access and protect our faith and identity. Then satellite dishes shot up on roofs. Today, the internet and smart phones have become the foremost woe.
However, he said that Iran could not develop without embracing the digital world and criticised the idea that students should just take notes from books rather than go online.
Internet censorship has eased somewhat under Rouhani’s new government, Iranians say, but he lacks the power to open it up completely.
Key strategic matters connected to the net fall under the authority of the Supreme Council of Virtual Space set up two years ago by the clergy.