A WSJ Look at Creepy Iranian Repression

The Wall Street Journal has an important piece of foreign reportage on the front page this morning. Farnaz Fassihi reports that the Iranian government is using the Web and other means to squelch the protests against it outside the country.

This is all based on anecdotal evidence, but it’s a serious investigation. The Journal interviewed 90 Iranian ex-pats to put together the picture of harassment and threats that Iranians abroad are facing in the wake of massive anti-regime protests earlier this year.

Like this:

An Iranian engineer in his 30s who lives in a German-speaking area of Europe, and who attended protests there this year, described having his passport, cellphone and laptop confiscated when he later traveled to Tehran. He said he was called in for questioning several times, blindfolded, kicked and physically abused, and asked to hand over his email and Facebook passwords.

Interrogators showed him images of himself participating in protests in Europe, he said, and pressed him to identify other people in the images.

Talk about Big Brother.

The Journal is smart to point this out: In a twist for an event which was thought to have been enabled and pushed by social media (though it turned out just 0.027 percent of Iranians actually used Twitter), the Iranian regime, in a dastardly bit of jujitsu, is using Twitter and Facebook to intimidate protesters into silence.

Today’s crisis echoes the events of three decades ago, when Iran’s Islamic revolution first bloomed. Back then, Iranians around the world pooled their energy and money to help oust Iran’s monarch, the shah. This time, the global community is backing a similar effort, using new tools including Facebook and Twitter. YouTube videos providing step-by-step instructions for staging civil disobedience rack up thousands of views.

But now, unlike 30 years ago, Iran’s leadership is striking back across national borders.

Dozens of individuals in the U.S. and Europe who criticized Iran on Facebook or Twitter said their relatives back in Iran were questioned or temporarily detained because of their postings.

The Journal fleshes that out with some good color:

Concerns about the safety of friends and family are so prevalent among younger Iranians that a number have changed their surnames on Facebook to “Irani” (which means simply “from Iran”) to be harder to single out.

In other words, the Internet, often thought of as an inherently democratizing force, isn’t necessarily: It can be used to further repression outside a country’s borders.

That’s a fascinating angle on a good story.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.