The hardline mullahs calling the shots in Iran have made accessing Facebook a crime and anybody caught logging onto the site faces a serious prison sentence if caught, VentureBeat has learned.
The Iranian government has previously banned major online outfits like Facebook, Twitter, and Google in order to stifle debate about the regime. In 2009, Facebook use was banned amid a turbulent election.
Sources inside Tehran and Iranian activists based in the U.S. told VentureBeat that making Facebook use a crime shows the desperation and brutality of a regime reeling from economic sanctions and global criticism for supporting the Syrian dictator Basher Al Assad, among other factors.
READ MORE: Family of jailed Facebook user in Iran: ‘They are going to kill her ‘
“It’s now illegal to visit Facebook,” said Saghar Kasraie, an activist based in Virginia.
Kasraie said Iranians rely on Facebook to keep in touch with family members and friends both in the country and outside. Users are able to get around the blockage of Facebook by using proxy servers, portable hotspots connected to cell phones, and Turkey-based ISP’s.
Despite outlawing social media, Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani, who came to power vowing reforms, uses Facebook and in particular Twitter, as do numerous high-ranking Iranian politicians, military, and intelligence officials.
“Rouhani and his people all have Facebook and Twitter accounts,” Kasraie said. “Many Iranians also use Facebook, but not with their real names.”
In addition to Facebook, many Iranians inside the country use Skype, Tango, and Viber to keep the conversation going and for the exchange of information about what’s actually happening inside the Islamic republic. The U.S. considers Iran one of the biggest state sponsors of terrorism and severed diplomatic ties with Tehran in 1979.
The mullahs mean business. Earlier this month, a hardline judge in Tehran sentenced eight Iranians, mostly students, to 8 and 20 years in prison respectively for posting on a Facebook page the mullahs don’t like. That was the precursor to the outright criminalization of social media, activists told VentureBeat.
“Hojjatol-Islam val-Moslemin Hamid Shahriari, the deputy chief justice for the Statistics, Information, and Technology Ministry, is the highest official at the Islamic Republic of Iran’s judiciary system stating that Facebook and other social media sites are a threat to the country,” Kasraie said.
Roya Nobakht, 47, was caught up in the social media crackdown while visiting family members from England, where she lives. She was sentenced to 20 years three weeks ago and her family in the UK claims she has been beaten and brutalized inside Evin prison where she is being held.
Read her story here.
Facebook is an important communication platform for millions of Iranians, both inside the country and for those living abroad. Many refer to it as “Facebookistan,” Kasraie said.
“Many Iranians want to thank Zuckerberg for starting it,” she said. “It has brought many of us together.”
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