“God in the year 2022 is the same God as He was in 1981,” announced Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in a speech on June 28, in a meeting with the officials from the Iranian judiciary.
The sentence became a highlight on social media in an otherwise bleak address about the need to restrict Iranians’ access to the free internet. If Iran’s current laws did not allow for blackouts, Khamenei said, the state needed to come up with new ones.
In a statement issued on the same day, Reporters without Borders (RSF) warned about the regime’s now-entrenched practice of cutting off internet access during street protests. It called on Abr Arvan, the company responsible for developing the so-called National Information Network – a domestic intranet authorities want to replace the real web – to cease its collaboration with the regime in Tehran.
Reza Moini, the head of RSF's Iran-Afghanistan desk, appraised the new speech in its entirety and spoke to IranWire about it. In his view, Khamenei was quite right; today’s God is indeed the same God of 1981, and unfortunately in both cases it was the Islamic Republic.
Reverting to Type
“The judiciary must prevent the minds of the people from becoming worried and disturbed by rumors, false claims, and the frightening statements of specific and unknown individuals, in both the media and the internet,” Khamenei proclaimed on Tuesday.
The paternalistic comment was a continuation of many others that have come before – and also a reflection of domestic law. The Islamic Penal Code lists an arcane “criminal offence” of “disturbing the public mind”.
Back in May 1996, in a meeting with managing editors, Khamenei first described the media as being divided into three categories: those that supported the regime, “scientific” outlets and specialists without any interest in politics, and a third group which he called “hostile”. He advised the first group to avoid “slandering” officials and remember that their main responsibility was to “uphold the values of the regime and the principles of the revolution”. The “hostile” third group, he said, were run by untrustworthy elements, but “this does not mean that we have drawn our swords against them. No!”
Four years later, however, he did draw his sword. A new press law was passed by the parliament on April 18, 2000, after which Khamenei delivered a speech that initiated the mass shutdown of many newspapers, especially reformist publications.
“To maintain security,” Khamenei said, “the tools in the hands of dangerous criminals and lunatics must be taken away from them. Some of these newspapers we have today are the enemy’s bases. They do the same thing that the BBC wants to do, the same thing that the American radio wants to do, the same thing that English and Zionist TVs want to do. Some of the press are committing a kind of charlatanism.”
Since then Khamenei has repeatedly attacked press freedom in his speeches, by turns gaslighting Iranian audiences and demonizing members of the press. His official site even houses a selection of these statements, on a page entitled “Media Dos and Don’ts”.
In 2009, at the height of the pro-democracy Green Movement protets, he told a group of Basijis: “It is not clear who sets the policies for some of the press and media. They make money by creating disagreements... Rumor-mongering is wrong. They explicitly libel officials and spread rumors about them.”
In 2012, he said the electronic media had led people to extremism and infighting, and that “officials must do something about it.” He has since attributed any view that is contrary to those held by the regime to “enemies” and to Zionism.
In a pivotal speech delivered on March 21, 2021, on the first day of a new Iranian century, the Supreme Leader now took aim at cyberspace. "All countries in the world manage [access to] cyberspace,” he said. “But in our country, some are proud that cyberspace is free, while this method is nothing to be proud of at all.” He went on to stress that the digital sphere should not be “ceded to the enemy”.
He has since expanded on these ideas. In the address on Tuesday, he told judicial officials: “If you don’t have laws [to take legal action], then who can provide such laws? You must provide such laws. Write bills and give them to the parliament to pass for you.”
A Predictable Predator
Reza Moini of RSF told IranWire that in his view, Khamenei’s demand that Iranians’ internet access be disrupted by the state is a continuation of an older pattern. “It’s the same thing he has been saying and doing since the start of the Islamic Republic, as one of its architects. He is correct in saying that the God of 1981 is the same as the God of today; in both cases it was the Islamic Republic, which put the military and security institutions in charge of the press.”
The first comprehensive press law of the Islamic Republic was ratified in March 1986, while Khamenei was president and also head of the main state newspaper. It starts with the sentence: “Publications and news media shall enjoy freedom of expression provided what they publish does not violate Islamic principles or the civil code.”
Chapter 2 of this law defines the mission of the press, which includes “advancing the objectives outlined in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic”. It warns that output “musts not be in conflict wiht the principles of the Islamic Republic”, a concept that can arbitrarily change at the Supreme Leader’s behest.
“Since the early 1980s,” Moini said, “Iran’s press laws have been aimed at a systematic suppression of press freedom. After the law was amended in 2000 the situation became even worse. While in many places in the world efforts were underway to open up journalism, the Islamic Republic criminalized it even further in the name of ‘national interests’. Whatever really served the public interest was barred.”
As such, he said, “It is only logical that today’s God must also make decisions on behalf of social media and cyberspace. It was the same God, i.e. Ali Khamenei, who unlawfully created the Supreme Council of Cyberspace. They are the ones who came up with the idea of a ‘halal’ internet called the ‘National Information Network’. Yes, Khamenei is right.”
After 42 years of religious dictatorship, more than three decades of Khamenei’s rule, Iran holds the 178th place among 180 countries in RSF’s 2022 World Press Freedom Index, only ahead of Eritrea and North Korea. And RSF’s most recent annual Press Freedom Predators list put Khamenei among the 37 heads of state most ardently engaged with violating press freedom. The Supreme Leader of Iran has appeared on the list every year since its creation 20 years ago.
Even the Great Wall Can Be Bypassed
Khamenei’s recent statements have heightened concerns that further internet restrictions are on the way in Iran. But Moini believes it will face serious obstacles in entirely blocking the free flow of information, which appears to be the long-term plan.
For one thing, he said, the Islamic Republic profits from the open internet and cannot simply abandon it. “Our have shown that even at the height of sanctions, the Islamic Republic has made billions from the internet. The import of smartphones and other technical equipment is controlled by certain sectors of the government, especially the Revolutionary Guards, and that means profit. Even today, when the internet costs more, operators affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards are in control. So why disrupt this source of revenue?”
Money aside, at least some Iranians, like their counterparts in other countries, have access to censorship circumvention tools. “Today,” Moini said, “the most advanced form of a ‘national internet’ can be found in China. But even Beijing hasn’t been able to make censorship work the way it wants it to. Despite all the prohibitive action, news about coronavirus and corruption in the Communist Party leaked out. Even if the Islamic Republic builds a ‘Great Wall of China’, there will always be a way to bypass it.”
Moini added that there is an ulterior motive to the regime’s bid to keep Iranians offline. “What terrifies the Islamic Republic is people being aware of their rights. Passing laws to impose restrictions is a sign of fear. Why would a regime, after 42 year of absolute power, pass laws to restrict access to information? Because it’s being defeated.”