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09/10/2023 English

HRC54 Side Event with ARTICLE 19 & IHRDC: Statement from Mahsa Alimardani

Statement from ARTICLE 19’s Mahsa Alimardani, from side event “A YEAR OF THE WOMAN, LIFE, FREEDOM MOVEMENT: Crackdown on Dissent and the State of Women’s Rights in Iran”. Find our recap of the 54th session of the Human Rights Council for more information.

Hi everyone, thank you so much for including me. To IHRDC for organizing this, and to Impact Iran, of course. It is a hard act to follow after all of these distinguished panelists. I work for Article 19, and of course, you all know what Article 19 stands for. It is the right to freedom of expression and access to information. We have been following the horrific abuses against the right to freedom of expression and freedom of information, both offline and online, for the past year. It really has been an unprecedented milestone this year for freedom of expression in Iran. But one of the things that is quite notable is the fact that many Iranians withdrew the barriers of self-censorship that they typically maintained as this uprising formed mass appeal across the nation. So, being this unprecedented level of bravery, you know, yes, you mentioned that women in Iran were calling for certain things, and they were vocally doing this on social media. So this has been really a milestone for freedom of expression, and of course, this unprecedented bravery has been met with one of the most horrific periods in Iran’s history for freedom of expression.

To be met with brutal repression, and so the different ways that this has been met, especially online, which I have been following, has been extremely concerning. And this starts from the different means of silencing dissent online. I don’t need to tell you if the numerous journalists who have been arrested, including Niloofar Hamedi, one of the more notable individuals who was arrested after a photo she posted right after Jina Amini’s death in hospital was announced. The photo she took of Amini’s parents went viral, and she was arrested shortly after. Our colleagues at CPJ have, of course, documented the numerous journalists that are behind bars currently or have been within the past year. The number of persecutions for online expression has been in the hundreds, and most prominently have been the innumerable numbers of women who have gone to social media to post their allegiance to Women Life Freedom and post pictures of themselves without hijab. Only a few weeks ago, Dr. Laila ?? was one notable individual who did this on her Twitter account, and the regime’s authorities took her into custody and made a horrific show of making a video to use for their propaganda to instill fear on other women to not follow suit.

And of course, these efforts, especially online, to ensure that women remain fearful of allying themselves with Women Life Freedom and taking off their hijab have been numerous. From these propaganda efforts to, of course, the hijab and chastity bill that Skylar went through in quite a lot of detail. Skylar did allude to the user protection bill or the internet bill that has been very concerning, but I would have to say most of the focus and the same regulation to give bills to the special committees that will finalize the final draft of a bill behind closed doors and not in open parliamentary sessions also went into force for the chastity and head job bill. And for good or for bad, the internet bill hasn’t had that much time or focus by Parliament, as they have been dealing more reactively to concerns related to the uprising.

Of course, the elements of the draconian user protection bill have been enforced unofficially in various ways, and I can go through some of those things as well. But just to summarize, the issue of silencing descent online is a major concern about the ARTICLE 19 and I’m sure to everyone else following the arrests of protesters and anyone involved in descent online. Of course, this period of this past year has been marked by unprecedented levels of censorship, especially concerning has been the ways that the regime has been censoring virtual private networks or VPNs in very sophisticated ways. And of course, this is part of the policy of the user protection bill.

The sophisticated efforts that have gone into place with this have meant that accessing the internet has become a major hurdle for Iranians, especially as we saw the censorship of Google’s Play Store. Ninety percent of Iranians use Android phones, and censoring the Google Play Store means that the hurdle of accessing VPNs that work is even that much harder. Users have to go develop the skills to download jailbroken apps or pay someone to do that for them. These hurdles have increased a lot, especially with more and more platforms being censored, such as WhatsApp and Instagram. We’ve also seen unprecedented levels of disruptions and shutdowns, with new tactics being introduced like mobile curfews.

And of course, I realize I’m running out of time, so I won’t go through everything, but as Shahin also alluded, the issue of [digital] surveillance is a very big deal, and this kind of goes hand in hand with the chastity and hijab bill, which is in the efforts to instill fear in women, which have been the grand announcements of the use of facial recognition to monitor women. It is hard to say at this point how advanced or sophisticated this technology is. In the past, the regime has announced other projects for digital repression with a lot of grand pro directions. One of these projects was the intelligent filtering program a few years ago that, in the end, ended up taking up a lot of funds, millions and millions of dollars of budget that were mismanaged. So it is yet unclear to see the sophistication here, but there have been reports that indicate traffic surveillance technology has been used to penalize women without proper hijab identified through their cars.

And of course, we have seen concerning trends and sort of the transnational movement of technology being used for surveillance to Iran, and two notable companies have been China’s Tiandy and, of course, Germany’s Bosch. So there is this need for your delegations to be working with your different allies and partners, or with different countries, to ensure that this transnational flow of digital repression technology is not going to Iran. And of course, there is a need to support especially the plight of women and what they have been trying to achieve because as I went through all these different elements of freedoms online, this has seeped into almost every facet, from silencing descent online to the new technologies that are being developed to surveil and monitor women from achieving these desires for bodily autonomy and equality in Iran. Thank you.