Since this summer’s presidential elections, Iran has responded to dissent with a heavy hand inside the country. Now, new reporting by the Wall Street Journal has uncovered the government’s suppression of dissent outside the country as well. WSJ deputy Middle East bureau chief Farnaz Fassihi explains.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week in the Iranian capital Tehran, another wave of student protests against their government and last summer’s disputed presidential elections, also more violent clashes with police. According to reports, the government fired shots into crowds of protesters, jammed cell phone signals, Internet connections and satellite TV reception and ordered reporters to stay off the streets of Tehran until Wednesday. Ever since last summer’s elections, the Iranian regime has used a heavy hand against dissent inside the country. Now, The Wall Street Journal reports on the Iranian government’s fight against dissent outside the country, as well, essentially going global against the opposition. Farnaz Fassihi is the deputy Middle East bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. Welcome to the show.
FARNAZ FASSIHI: Thank you for having me, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You and your reporting team have interviewed more than 90 people around the world who have talked about how they've been pursued and threatened by the Iranian government. You began your piece with a young man who lives in the U.S. and has family in Iran. It began with an ominous email.
FARNAZ FASSIHI: The email to Koosha warned him that if he doesn't stop his criticism of the Iranian regime, his family in Iran would be harmed. He first thought that this was a joke, that somebody was playing a prank on him. He’s a graduate student. He’s not typically a political activist, but he had attended several protests. He had created a petition, for a human rights activist who was arrested in Iran, online. A few days later, I think two days later, his mother called from Iran and said that security guards had gone to their house and arrested his father and detained him for a day, and warned him that unless his son stops his activity and brings down the petition, he could never return back home safely and that the family would be facing more problems. You know, this is pretty shocking to the Diaspora, because up until now they've had a pretty good relationship with the Iranian regime. Many of them go back and forth, and Iran has sort of tried not to disown them. But the June election really just turned the relationship between the Iranians in exile and the regime on its head.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, part of the reason, as you note in your piece, is how powerful the Iranian Diaspora has been in the past. I mean, in 1979 it had a great deal to do with the revolution.
FARNAZ FASSIHI: Absolutely, I mean, these are people who know how this is done. And now, with modern technology, it’s much easier than it was 30 years ago. Iran announced just last month, in November, that it was creating an Internet crime unit. I mean, the Internet has served the Iranian opposition very well to organize and pass information on Facebook and on Twitter. It also has a flip side in which it’s allowed the regime to also monitor the activities of opposition supporters online and identify them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Getting back to the young man who got the threatening email, from what you could find, is the Iranian government hacking into people’s accounts?
FARNAZ FASSIHI: I think that in this case, they used the public Facebook page that he had created for the human rights activist, so they could identify who created the petition, who has signed on and what kind of comments are being put on the page. So, it’s difficult to determine whether they have actually been hacking into people’s private settings, but what we've seen is that many members of the Iranian Diaspora have changed their last names into “Irani” which simply means Iranian. They've taken their pictures off, any personal information off. And quite a number of people we interviewed temporarily deactivated their accounts when they were going back to Iran.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you give me another example of someone who was threatened or whose experience seems to have been shared by many, many dozens of people?
FARNAZ FASSIHI: One of the things that we found was very prevalent was people under 30 who were going back to Iran on holiday or for visiting after June who were stopped at the airport and asked to log onto their Facebook account. This is from, you know, many examples from different parts of the world confirming this. And one doctor, a physician from Dubai who was going back, said that he lied and he said he doesn't have a Facebook account. And then they Googled his name and found it and took away his passport. So this is something that we found that was quite common.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For the people you interviewed, did the tactics work? Did they feel threatened enough to stop using the sites or stop speaking out altogether?
FARNAZ FASSIHI: Some people have been really outraged. They are very angry. They feel that they live in a free democratic society and they've, you know, broken from the chains of dictatorship and they don't want to be told what to do in the U.S. or in Europe or be intimidated. But I have to say that many, many people are also very cautious. You know, we saw quite a bit of people at the protest in September wearing big sunglasses, covering their face, trying not to be identified.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm. So then, is the Iranian regime being incredibly paranoid or incredibly canny?
FARNAZ FASSIHI: I think probably there’s truth to both.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Farnaz, thank you very much.
FARNAZ FASSIHI: Thank you very much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Farnaz Fassihi is the deputy Middle East bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal.
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