Sunday, May 31, 2009

New Media's Role in Iran's (Quasi-) Democracy

Iranian democracy is complicated. It's not a completely closed or autocratic system, but it isn't Sweden, either. Candidates have a lot of hurdles to go through to get on the ballot (although anyone familiar with third party/independent politics in America knows that's not unfamiliar), and then they have to deal with the religious leadership, which isn't elected, constantly moving to tell them how they can or cannot campaign or what they can say.

So, two reformist candidates for Presidency have taken to using Facebook to get their message out. The Guardian writes:

Approaching its presidential election, Iran is in the midst of a censorship drive by the Ahmadinejad government, aimed at blocking his reformist rivals' message. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is running against two reformist candidates, Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, and one fundamentalist, Mohsen Rezai, in the election on 12 June.

Facebook and Twitter were among hundreds of websites and blogs filtered recently because they provide a platform for reformist candidates to reach out to Iranian youth. Moussavi, a Facebook member and pro-reform candidate who is now backed by former moderate president Mohammad Khatami, is becoming Ahmadinejad's main rival in the election.

Facebook was restored after being blocked for a week when a CNN reporter asked Ahmadinejad publicly about its filtering in a press conference, but "access is denied" is rapidly becoming the most-viewed page for Iran's online society. A strong debate on Moussavi and Karroubi, the two reformist candidates, is being conducted on Facebook, while there is little sign of support for Ahmadinejad on the social networking website.

Yas-e-No, a reformist newspaper affiliated to Moussavi, was also closed down by the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance on 16 May. The issue of Yas-e-No, which carried the headline "Khatami-Moussavi for Iran" along with a photo of the two men together, was its first after a five-year hiatus. The paper was initially closed down in February 2004 for publishing an open letter from Iranian MPs to Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader, criticising the Guardian Council's vetting of candidates for parliamentary elections. The Guardian Council, whose 12 members are directly appointed by the supreme leader, has to approve all candidates for any Iranian elections.

We've seen the "netroots" successfully topple entrenched incumbents here in the US. We're about to find out exactly how effective the Internet is in opening up and reviving Iranian democracy.