Iranian Protests and the Crisis of Free Speech

There is consensus among scholars and observers that the protests that erupted in Iran in September 2022 represent a defining moment in the contemporary history of the nation and that they have transformed the contours of hierarchical interactions between the state and the public. An indignant population, dismayed by police brutality, injustice, and the absence of social freedoms, plucked up the courage to resist the status quo and challenge a formidable theocracy. Scenes of bold confrontation between young Iranians—and especially women—and the armed security forces dominating the streets exuded an unprecedented resilience and bravery that the world admired.

But looking at how the government and sections of the Iranian diaspora community reacted to the protests revealed a common thread: inhibiting free speech to serve divergent ends, at a time when it was needed the most. The Islamic Republic as a state actor deployed its coercive instruments and prosecuted independent journalists in order to silence them and make it even more difficult for accurate information to trickle out of the country. And prominent figures in the diaspora drew on their influence on social media to squash the voices of other Iranians, especially women journalists and academics, who were similarly aghast at the crackdown but were proclaiming their views in terms that were deemed to be too moderate and less inflammatory.

On social media and in private circles, discussions of the thread of events that followed the September 16, 2022 death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of Iran’s “morality police” were omnipresent. At its crescendo, the hashtag #MahsaAmini was used on Twitter more than 300 million times. This outpouring of agitation and passion does not mean that the debate over the killing and the ensuing protests was predominantly civil, or that there was sufficient room for the exchange of diverse ideas. The Iranian regime fulfilled its traditional role as an adversary of free speech and deployed its routine tools of arrests, imprisonments, and bans in order to instill fear. The diaspora also wreaked havoc on the possibility of diverse voices being heard due to its anger that the uniformity that more aggressive expats expected from the conversation was non-existent.

The Regime Attacks Free Speech

A crippling internet blackout was the government’s knee-jerk response to the eruption of protests that were unprecedented in scale and intensity. Not only could massive disruptions to connectivity prevent the more efficient mobilization of protesters, it could also do the ruling elite a favor by stripping people of the means with which to share their critical thoughts about the striking developments and what appeared to be a revolutionary inflection point. Indeed, undemocratic rulers always benefit from constraining critical debate.

Iranian authorities blocked Instagram and WhatsApp prior to the beginning of the protests.

Iranian authorities blocked Instagram and WhatsApp, the last two social media platforms that remained officially available to Iranians prior to the beginning of the protests, rationalizing the decision by arguing that these platforms violated Iran’s sovereignty and that their parent company Meta needed to open offices in Tehran. Despite the new restrictions, Iranians continued using these platforms, even though they were forced to do so using sluggish VPNs.

Starting in the early days of the protests, the government embarked on a full-scale campaign targeting journalists, academics, and activists who were earmarked for judicial action merely on account of expressing solidarity with the protesters or criticizing the country’s clerical leadership. Even relatively unknown local journalists with only a few hundred followers on social media ended up behind bars, and as the protests progressed it dawned on Iranians that the government was on a rampage, smothering anyone who dissented.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, to date, Iran has arrested a total of 95 journalists, 46 of whom have been released on bail pending trial. These include Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi, two prominent reporters who were among the first journalists to break the story of the death of Mahsa Amini. According to the CPJ’s 2022 prison census, Iran recently overtook China and Myanmar as the world’s worst jailer of journalists.

Journalists were not the sole casualties of this sweeping assault on critical voices, even though they were the bellwether of collateral damage in the Islamic Republic’s war on free speech. With time, other influential voices using social media to communicate their thoughts with the public, sympathize with the protesters, and denounce the crackdown began to fall out of favor with the government and were turned into scapegoats for legal action. Prominent athletes, filmmakers, actors, novelists, and other artists who felt that it was morally incumbent upon them to speak out and take the side of the protesters became the subject of unrestrained arrests and were handed astonishingly long sentences. A committee set up to investigate the situation of film directors, actors and other cinema professionals being prosecuted by the government reported in December 2022 that 150 of them have either been summoned, detained, pleaded guilty, been prevented from leaving the country, or faced other forms of restrictions.

The regime’s iron fist was wielded to scare off a restive population at the same time that the authorities insisted that they were drawing a distinction between protests and rioting and that they recognized people’s grievances. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Chief Justice Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i have said on multiple occasions that they were prepared to listen to the disgruntled people and happy to make changes in governance. But they never made clear what the permissible pathways to dialogue were, and what form of dissent they were speaking of, which begs the question: If the threshold of tolerance was so low that even an innocuous column in a newspaper or a simple Instagram story would not be accepted as legitimate protest, then what would be?

If the threshold of tolerance was so low that even an innocuous column in a newspaper or a simple Instagram story would not be accepted as legitimate protest, then what would be?

The bottom line is that a rigorous attempt at monopolizing the discourse inside the country and ensuring that all channels of relaying information remained under government oversight persisted, even though the authorities could clearly understand its adverse effects. People have become increasingly opposed to official propaganda and have lost their trust in Iranian local media, even outlets that are more moderate and reform-leaning.

Failures of the Diaspora

Meanwhile, a huge body of literature was produced by Iranians in diaspora communities in reaction to the recent protests, including by journalists, academics, commentators, think tank experts, and scholars who joined the debate over the protests’ significance and raised public awareness of this moment of reckoning and its implications. Some interpretations of the course of events were more radical and subversive, presented in rather acerbic tones and with more visible slants. These portrayals, mostly put out by activists, were premised on furthering the idea of regime change. Appeals to foreign governments to consider the idea of a military invasion of Iran or of doubling down on economic sanctions to torpedo the national economy were made by influential personalities whose work generally falls into this category.

Other accounts of the protests were more refined, delineating their progression and the government response with sophistication, but without advocating for a specific outcome. The authors of such positions described the ongoing recasting of the sociopolitical order in rather impartial terms, building on their lived experience in Iran and their understanding and scholarly observations of the country.

In the middle of what was widely termed a “feminist revolution” that coalesced around the suppressed voices of Iranian women, an inordinate amount of time and energy was expended on slandering voices of women who were perceived by the more powerful and more vocal segments of the diaspora to be defying the revolution or sounding sympathetic to the government. As the protests gained steam and the conversation became more animated, a fierce campaign kicked off on Twitter and other social media spaces to settle political scores and eliminate some people from the scene, and especially to “cancel” women promoting discourses that did not pass the “dinner table test” of the diaspora’s radical heavyweights.

In one instance, a senior BBC Persian anchor, Rana Rahimpour, became the target of coordinated attacks on social media, and eventually made the decision to temporarily delete her social media accounts and leave her position after portions of a wiretapped phone conversation she had with her mother—that was edited to make it seem as though she supported the government—were leaked online. Rahimpour also supposedly made allegations about Iran International, a London-based broadcaster that she argued is part of plots to tear Iran apart, which in response aired a documentary denouncing Rahimpour, leading to further online abuse.

The same treatment was afforded to Azadeh Moaveni, an award-winning Iranian American journalist and university professor who was commissioned to write a Time magazine cover story detailing the ordeal and battles of the protests’ resilient women. Her piece generated marked interest on social media, but an outspoken fringe coterie of diaspora activists responded by painting the article as an apology for the Islamic Republic. The modus operandi was the same: lashing out at a woman author using sexist tropes and vulgar language and making unsubstantiated allegations about her professional background.

Other examples abound of prominent women being vilified for doing their job and dissecting sensitive matters with nuance and subtlety, both during and long before the recent protests. Accusations of dual loyalty, scaremongering, false insinuations, and libel are all tools that are frequently used by members of the diaspora to silence voices that have long been essential constituents of any conversation about Iranian affairs.

Years of being away from Iran have produced in some members of the diaspora intellectual disconnect and conflicting interests regarding both the prospective leadership in their origin country and the different leaders for whom they root.

The genealogy of the Iranian diaspora can reveal much about the bifurcations and skirmishes that permeate this variegated collective. Years of being away from Iran have produced in some members of the diaspora intellectual disconnect and conflicting interests regarding both the prospective leadership in their country of origin and the different leaders for whom they root. In addition, cultural and educational factors and the nature of their bonds with their host communities contribute to the evolution of their perceptions and attitudes. There is a diversity of ideas around the diaspora’s explicit differences and splits, which boil down to the conclusion that as long as extreme attitudes and vigilantism are allowed to be reproduced, the diaspora will fail to be a catalyst for democratic change in Iran, playing little role in any positive transition.

Debate Remains Costly

The cost of debate about and around Iran remains high, and free speech continues to be an elusive eventuality. The government has closed down avenues for expressing opposition to its policies and has instituted restrictive policies against the media and the public. Meanwhile, segments of the diaspora, which is blessed with the safety of living in relatively free and developed countries, are engaged in attacking those calling for democratic change, thereby compounding their stark disconnect from the realities of life in Iran.

The situation in Iran has never been so dicey and the multiplicity of stakeholders has scarcely been so plain. Conversations on the future of the country will naturally be intense because of the overarching perception that change is practical and within reach. But the toxicity that prevails in how such a debate is conducted and the current evasiveness of constructive, respectful engagement mostly derives from the fact that jockeying for power overshadows a genuine concern for the betterment of the Iranian people. Those who, for any reason, are making it difficult to protect free speech should be seen as acting in pursuit of their own interest rather than contributing to initiatives that could release Iranians from their current sociopolitical stalemate.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: shutterstock/Alexandros Michailidis