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Interviewed May 2011

Nima Rashedan was among the first Iranian cyber-activists. Born in Tehran in 1974, his father was a leftist opponent of the government headed by the Shah, so the family was forced into exile in the United States but returned to Iran after the 1979 revolution.

Upon his return, Rashedan became a member of student organizations and worked as a journalist, becoming one of the first writers to publish articles in Farsi on the Internet. In the late 1990s, after the election of President Khatami, he began writing pro-democracy articles.

In 1998, Rashedan was arrested and served time in prison, including a month in solitary confinement. After his release, Rashedan immigrated to Switzerland. He now lives in the Czech Republic and continues his work as a cyber-journalist and advocate. A frequent focus of his work is the similarity between the methods and objectives of the current Iranian regime and those of the former Soviet Union. 

I think the struggle for freedom and human rights in Iran – in the whole region, particularly in Iran – goes back for quite a long time. When I was born in 1974 my father was in prison because of writing some articles. At the time, he was a leftist activist and writer.

And as you can see, this struggle continues up to this. Right now, there are people in prison because of what they write; they express their opinions. So we had to go to exile during end of 1970s. We came to United States, to California. And then among other leftists, during the revolution of 1979, when it was the time of revolution, we got back to Iran because my father had – and a lot of leftist activists, they had – this utopia of now with the fall of Shah and ally of United States, they can create their utopia.

So, they were among the first victims. Ten thousands of leftist activist communists were massacred by [Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini as soon as he got to the power. So think that the whole country, the politics, was kind of suppressed for something like two decades. There was simply no way to express very basic of your opinions.

At the end of the 1990s, with election of President [Mohammad] Khatami, there was a very small, narrow window that people started to criticize the system. And there was free press. That time was the time of my politicization, and I became an activist and journalist. I was working with dozens of reformist papers, most of them have been shut down by Ayatollah [Ali] Khamenei, the supreme leader.

Journalists have been arrested; some of them have been killed; and a lot of others, they just left the country: they are living in the United States, in France. But there are a lot of activists of my generation still in Iran struggling, many of them in prison, facing jail terms up to 20 years, continuing their fight for freedom.

Well, I was never a free journalist, if you take this Western idea of free journalist into the context. But for Iran, which there was not even a word of criticizing just the whole establishment. If you can't criticize a school principal, this is kind of free journalist.

And this was just a very, very tiny, narrow window at the start; we all hoped that it would by the time, that it will grow up, grow more. But the system was so horrifying. I remember I was a technical student at the University of Tehran; I was studying computer software. At the same time, I was very interested in social science; I was very interesting in history, social anthropology, political sociology and stuff like that.

So I was going to the school to attend the classes for these subjects. And then, you know, mixing the computer and the whole digital era and the first – the very first – days of Internet in Iran, which at that time was not a threat for government because no one had any idea what is internet. When first it appeared, we were using some very basic equipment, like nine kilobyte modems, using phone lines. There was no World Wide Web; there was a BBS [Bulletin Board System] that people were connecting.

So I came with a friend of mine: his name is Mr. Achmir Musadi. He became later a member of parliament in the time of reform; he's living in Washington, D.C., right now. We got this idea that Khatami was first elected president. We connect him through the BBS to online Internet users. And I think that the whole number of users in whole Iran was something like 500 people.

But this idea later became the whole, you know, the current of this digitized reform movement in Iran; from this whole idea a lot of websites have been made, a lot of networks have been established. When I'm talking about that, this is five years before the first blog appeared – it's ten years before Twitter – it's fifteen years before Facebook – it's such a long time ago.

But I'm really proud of, you know, seeing the things at that time from this perspective. And I was thinking that the point of a totalitarian, paranoid regime is first to limit access of citizens, to free flow of information, to spread their own agenda, because they are totalitarian. And then about political paranoia – they need this kind of inaccurate, paranoid news coming and putting questions to everything.

So if you can establish channels if people access to the accurate news, then they can evaluate whether what government said, what statistic or what claims they make, is it true or not. And I got to this point, let's say, 20 years ago; and I still think this is the way to go. If you help people to have free access to Internet, to information, then the government – as it loses part of its legitimacy – will be collapsing, at least at the point of very, very insiders, people close the establishment. 

Iran is a Middle Eastern nation with a population of just over 77 million. Iran’s population is predominately Persian, and Persian is the official language. The Shia branch of Islam is the official state religion, and approximately 90-95 percent of the population belongs to the faith. The second-largest nation in the region, Iran contains some of the world’s largest oil and gas reserves. The energy industry makes up a large portion of Iran’s economy, and the nation is one of the founding members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

The Islamic Republic of Iran is the world's only remaining theocratic state, in which political leadership is vested in religious authorities. The Islamic Republic was created in 1979 following a revolution against the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Although many elements of Iranian society led the revolution, ultimately Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his followers gained control of the country. In December 1979, the country adopted an Islamic constitution providing that “all civil, criminal, financial, economic, administrative, cultural, military, political and all other statutes and regulations be in keeping with Islamic [law].”

Following adoption of the new constitution, Khomeini became the “Supreme Leader,” the ultimate political and religious authority in the country. Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hoseyni Khamenei has been Supreme Leader since Khomeini’s death in 1989. The Supreme Leader is selected by a body of Islamic scholars called the Assembly of Experts. The Supreme Leader is responsible for the military and security concerns of Iran and has the final say on all issues. The president of Iran, who is elected by the public from a list approved by the Guardian Council (a body comprised of clerics and jurists), is nominally responsible for administration of the executive branch and is subject to the authority of the Supreme Leader.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president in 2005. Ahmadinejad was viewed as an ultraconservative and his views a stark contrast from the relatively reformist policies of his predecessor, President Mohammad Khatami. Despite promises of equality and fighting corruption, Ahmadinejad and his administration cracked down on civil liberties and more strictly enforced religious-based morality laws.

Ahmadinejad was reelected in 2009 in an election widely viewed as fraudulent. Following the June 2009 election, hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets in the largest protests in the country since 1979, which came to be known as the “Green Revolution.” The government responded to the peaceful protestors with a massive campaign of intimidation, violence, and limits on freedoms. Universities were closed down, media outlets and internet resources censored, and rights to assembly restricted.

In June 2013, Hassan Rouhani was elected President and replaced Ahmadinejad. Rouhani has a reputation as a relatively moderate reformer and has promised additional freedoms and rights. It remains to be seen whether or not these promises will be fulfilled.

According to Freedom House, Iran is one of the least-free countries in the world. In its most recent report, Iran received a score of six in both the political rights and civil liberties categories, where one represents most free and seven represents least free. Iran has been the subject of numerous resolutions at the United Nations condemning the country’s human rights record. Among other things, the government uses summary arrest and execution against its political opponents. The death penalty is applied even for nonviolent crimes, including adultery. Radio and television broadcasting are under the control of the government and provide only government-approved content. Women are denied equal rights in marriage and other areas.

More on this theme from Nima Rashedan

Nima Rashedan: Physical and Digital Revolution Describing the beginning of the cyberdissident movement in Iran. Nima Rashedan: War on Media “It was a kind of war on media.”

Other videos from Nima Rashedan

Nima Rashedan: Iranian Women On conditions for women in Iran and the role of women in leading the pro-democracy movement. Nima Rashedan: Ideas in Solitary Confinement On his time in solitary confinement. Nima Rashedan: Time as an Ally “Nobody, nobody really can silence us because the technology and time is in our side.” More +