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Monday, June 30, 2003
Feature

Net makes Iran govt squirm
Firouz Sedarat

THE diary of a former prostitute is one of the hottest Websites in Iran, a strict Islamic society where the Internet is coveted for the access it gives users to a forbidden world.

The anonymous author, who presents herself as a 24-year-old former sex worker, says she does not want to just titillate readers in the conservative country that bans sex and romance outside marriage.

"Some may see my writings as an erotic film, but others might learn something useful from them. Itís like a knife that can be used to kill or to peel a cucumber," she says on her site (faheshe.persianblog.com).

Her site and other unabashed online diaries offer a rare insight into the mindset of Iranian youth who have grown up under strict social rules since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The new generation has been using the Internet to express themselves and satisfy their hunger for knowledge about taboo subjects, ranging from sex to Western-style entertainment or politics.

But they are at risk of losing that window to the world as Islamic conservatives move to restrict the Internet use as they have done with foreign satellite television. Their aim is to blot out the "immoral" effects of Western culture.

"This is my only link to the West. One click and Iím in Los Angeles. It also allows me freer contact with other young people inside Iran," said Haleh, a young woman.

After school, she often goes to a neighbourhood Internet cafe to chat online or look for the latest fashions or news of Iranian entertainers living in exile in Los Angeles.

She tries to suppress a giggle as she furtively reads an Iranian site offering tips on dating.

"Iím worried about being denied access to many of my favourite sites. I donít approve of immoral sites, but the question is who decides what is or is not moral," Haleh added.

A latecomer to the Internet age, Iran began last month to block pornography and other sites deemed obscene or subversive.

Some 70 youngsters were arrested in March for meeting through an illegal online dating site, newspapers reported, suggesting the authorities had monitored a chat-room they used.

An Internet boom has caught officials by surprise and prompted them to draw up rules for the largely unregulated sector. The number of users has jumped by 90 percent in the past year. Still, only about three million of Iranís population of 65 million-half of them under 25 ó have access to the net.

Iranian youths have launched 20,000 active Web logs, or "blogs", ó online diaries which range in topic from simple musings on life to political discussions to sports.

In April, Sina Motallebi became the first blogger to be arrested in Iran where dozens of reformist journalists have been charged by hardline courts. He was freed on bail three weeks later but still faces undisclosed charges.

Women have been especially active bloggers, seizing the opportunity to speak out freely and anonymously on subjects such as dating and romance.

Besides popular political and news sites, half of the 10 most visited Persian blogs are about sex, according to figures from a service providing statistics on Web usage.

"Blogs show us a new generation...that is self-expressive, tolerant and individualistic," said Hossein Derakhshan, a Toronto-based veteran Iranian blogger (hoder.com/weblog).

"Many are lonely and hopeless to the point of depression. They seem to be frustrated and have a problem with sex," said Derakhshan, who presented a study on Iranian blogs at a conference in Vienna in late May.

Growing tension with Washington since the war in neighbouring Iraq has prompted hardliners to tighten control over the flow of information. There is heavier jamming of US-based Iranian satellite television stations carrying entertainment and dissident messages calling for anti-government protests.

"I think authorities are upset about the parallels these stations draw between Iraq and Iran," said Hassan, a journalist.

The USA has hardened its rhetoric against Iran since the Iraq war; raising the spectre of military action against a country it calls part of an "axis of evil".

Iranís conservatives also seek to counter reformist and dissident groups using the net to reach the public and get round a ban on some 90 pro-reform newspapers in three years.

Reformists allied with President Mohammad Khatami are opposed to restrictions but conservatives say they are needed to check "enemy propaganda" and Western cultural influences.

So far 1,00,000 mainly foreign porn sites and about 200 Iranian sites have been blocked, but industry sources say the curbs are less drastic than those in nearby Gulf Arab states.

"Up to now mostly political sites have been hit, not blogs. But nothing is predictable here," said Ata Khalighi of persianblog.com, which hosts most Iranian Web logs.

"The day the filtering started, I rushed to check if our site has been blocked or not," he said.

Among the first sites to be blocked were the Persian Web page of the Voice of America, one of its most-viewed sites, and that of Radio Farda, a 24-hour station set up by Washington to try to woo young Iranians with a mix of pop songs and news.