Iran’s president signals softer line on web censorship and Islamic dress code
Newly elected Hassan Rouhani, an opponent of segregation by gender, says Iranians’ freedoms and rights have been ignored
Two weeks after his sensational victory Iran’s president-elect, Hassan Rouhani, has expressed relatively progressive views about civil liberties, freedom of expression and the internet.
Social networking sites such as Facebook were, he said, a welcome phenomenon.
In his most outspoken interview in the Iranian media, Rouhani told Chelcheragh – a popular youth magazine – that he is opposed to segregation of sexes in society, would work to minimise censorship and believes internet filtering is futile.
“In the age of digital revolution, one cannot live or govern in a quarantine,” he said as he made clear he is opposed to the authorities’ harsh crackdown on Iranians owning satellite dishes, which millions have installed on rooftops for access to foreign-based TV channels illegal in the country.
Rouhani, who has promised to put the Islamic republic back on the path of moderation after eight acrimonious years under the outgoing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, warned that citizens’ rights had been neglected.
He said he stood in the June presidential election as a candidate critical of the current situation and also because he felt the country was at peril.
“Today the republican [nature] of our country is overshadowed by a specific interpretation of its Islamic [character],” he said.
Rouhani’s reference to the republican character of Iran’s ruling system is a hint that the Islamic republic’s legitimacy is meant to come from the popular vote. Rouhani is scheduled to be sworn into office in early August.
“Some of the principles of our constitution have been emphasised while others were neglected and this is why we are facing an imbalance as a result,” he said.
“The freedom and rights of people have been ignored but those of the rulers have been emphasised … Restricting [people’s right] to criticise will only stifle and lead to inefficiency.”
Of internet filtering, Rouhani said some of the measures taken by the authorities to restrict users’ access online was not done in good faith and was instead politically motivated.
“There are political reasons. They have fears of the freedom people have in online atmosphere, this is why they seek to restrict information. But filtering is incapable of producing any [useful] results,” he said.
“Supporters of internet filtering should explain whether they’ve successfully restricted access to information? Which important piece of news has filtering been able to black out in recent years?”
He added: “Filtering has not even stopped people from accessing unethical [a reference to pornographic] websites. Widespread online filtering will only increase distrust between people and the state.”
Access to hundreds of thousands of websites is blocked in Iran, including Facebook and Twitter, but millions of Iranians use them via anti-filtering software or virtual private network (VPN) services.
Despite the filtering, Rouhani’s campaign was active on both sites at election time.
“The virtual space is a tool and it can be an opportunity or a threat,” said Rouhani.
“I remember that [former president] Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani once called social networking websites such as Facebook a welcome phenomenon. Indeed they are.”
Since Rouhani’s win, web users in Iran have reported a relative easing of online censorship and say revoked access to VPN accounts has been restored.
Rouhani also pledged to minimise censorship of artistic and cultural works and said the state – instead of interfering in the affairs of artists and cultural figures – should provide them with security.
“We should not tighten the red lines all the time, we should show that censorship is not our goal,” he said.
On the question of women wearing the hijab, a contentious issue in a country with millions unhappy about the mandatory religious code, the president-elect said he was against the crackdown against women with loose clothing – but he stopped short of saying it should be left as voluntary.
Each summer, as the heat bears down and makes it difficult for women and men in Iran to stick to their forced Islamic dress code, the religious police go out on to the streets to watch out for loose hijabs, inappropriate dress or hairstyles.
“I’m certainly against these actions,” said Rouhani, saying a women without a hijab is not necessarily without virtue.
“If a women or a man does not comply with our rules for clothing, his or her virtue should not come under question … In my view, many women in our society who do not respect our hijab laws are virtuous. Our emphasis should be on the virtue.”
In his interview, Rouhani said he opposed segregation of men and women, including at universities, and criticised the politicians who are against allowing women to enter stadiums to watch football matches along with men.
Iran’s state television, IRIB, the mouthpiece of the country’s ruling system, also came under attack from Rouhani.
“A large population of our youth are ignoring the [state] television because in it they haven’t seen the honesty, morality, justice that it merits,” he said.
“When the state TV shows a programme about the birth of a panda in a Chinese zoo but doesn’t broadcast anything about workers staging a protest because they haven’t been paid for six months … it’s obvious that people and the youth will ignore it. The solution is to have freedom of expression.
“If a day comes that our television shows more news coverage than foreign networks such as BBC, then people will reconcile with it.”
Rouhani has previously criticised the IRIB. During his first post-election speech at the weekend, he said a country which receives its legitimacy from its people should not fear free media.
He also said: “Injustice is an injustice … it’s a double standard to call an injustice in an unfriendly country as an injustice but to label the same thing in a friendly country as not … human rights is same in any place around the world.”