Freedom of expression is virtually nonexistent in Iran. According to Reporters Without Borders’ 2013 Press Freedom Index, Iran stands at the 174th place – the 6th from the bottom – among the 179 countries assessed with regard to freedom of expression or lack thereof. That is why The UN Refugee Agency has dubbed Iran the “Middle East’s biggest prison for journalists.”
In the absence of freedom of expression in Iran, power has been concentrated in the hands of the Islamic Republic and its functionaries who hold a strict monopoly on the media. As such, they don’t allow others to freely express their opinions on political, social, cultural, environmental, etc. issues and problems, which has largely contributed to the creation of a monophonous and monolithic state in Iran.
This in turn has forced many Iranian writers, journalists, critics, dissidents, and… to seek freedom of expression elsewhere, usually at a high price, in the face of many adversities and even at risk of losing their lives. In fact, it can be said that virtually all the Iranian public platforms that in one way or another oppose or criticize the regime in Iran are based overseas, especially in Europe and the United States.
Among these platforms, the link-sharing websites, due to their giving the users more authority in determining the content of the website – a rather “democratic” feature obviously absent from the mainstream Iranian media, have been very popular. One of the more successful websites in that trend has been Balatarin. According to its Wikipedia page, “Balatarin (Persian: بالاترین, lit., highest) is a Persian language social and political link-sharing website aimed primarily at Iranian audiences. Balatarin does not generate news in-house but provides a hub where users can post links to webpages of their choice, vote on their relevance or significance, and post comments.”
Though established long before that, Balatarin came to light since the fraudulent presidential elections of 2009 in Iran due to its independent citizen and journalist users’ sharing the news of and the announcements for the demonstrations against the election results. However, as time went by and as the website gathered momentum and attracted lots of attention, Balatarin itself began to demonstrate repressive tendencies. In waves of purges, well-known and prestigious users (or rather, IDs) were first denied the ability to create the so-called “hot-topic” strands and then their accounts were suspended by the management, and the website in general took a more conservative turn with respect to allowing for any kind of content opposing the Islamic Republic.
As such, these days links with substantial content against or in criticism of the regime hardly get a chance to become visible on the website, and the bulk of the content is now inclined towards supporting a particular faction of the regime called “The Reformists” who have long penetrated the media in the West by mass-migrating to the Western countries. As a matter of fact, a great host of users have been complaining about harsh censorship and slanted presentation of content in favor of the so-called Reformists, even in breach of Balatarin’s own internal regulations.
As a result, it has been many times claimed that Balatarin, though receiving aid from organizations worldwide that have a concern for freedom of expression and democracy, and also benefitting from Google service in order to seemingly protect itself from the cyber-attacks by the Islamic Republic, in effect toes the line of the Islamic Republic (or at least a faction of it), the very political entity that it became known for opposing in the first place.
Recently, an old user and a well-known political activist, Abbas Khosravi Farsani, has claimed that Balatarin sells or in whatever manner puts the users’ information at the disposal of the Islamic Republic. He has claimed that it was in fact his own incognito activities in Balatarin that led to his arrest by the Islamic Republic’s Ministry of Intelligence a couple of years ago.
Khosravi, who by that time was one of the top doctoral students in Western Philosophy at University of Isfahan in Iran, used to be a prolific blogger and a political activist who worked incognito, using fake but well-known IDs. He was later forced to flee Iran as he was about to face a heavy sentence, and has since been living abroad as a political refugee. He says that when the agents of the Ministry raided his house, they even had his IP (Internet Protocol) with them, and showed it to him on the spot.
As Balatarin was the only website that – as a mandatory feature – had access to Khosravi’s IP, and as some of the IDs that were then intimately in touch with him now appear to have top moderating responsibilities with strong pro-regime tendencies in Balatarin, Khosravi claims that he is certain it was Balatarin that sold his information to the Intelligence Ministry, and that he sees this as his inalienable right to bring charges against Balatarin at an impartial court of justice in due time.
Whether Khosravi’s claim is substantiated or not, this is only one among the many rather well-documented charges brought against Balatarin in recent times that claim this website works in the sphere of the Islamic Republic. These include “Balatarin Miracles: Are the policy-makers for the defense of democracy in Washington aware of the dramatic changes in the trends of Balatarin?”, “Censorship in Balatarin: this time omitting the hot topic on the Persian section of Voice of America”, “Imam Yahyanejad and Omitting Seven Hot Topics on the Persian Section of Voice of America”, “The ‘Where-Is-My-Link?’ Movement: a real fiction”, “Populating Balatarin with +18 Links”, “Are the Pictures of Jenifer Lopez and Lindsay Lohan More Important than the [Political] Analyses by Knodnevis?!”, “Where Art Thou, O Orwell?! Balatarin and 1984”, “A Fatwa to Forbid Balatarin”, “Balatarin and the Links that Are Not ‘Hot’ Anymore”, and “A Proposal for Creating a Better Link-Sharing Website than Balatarin”.
Nevertheless, the Balatarin management, though in charge of a public platform benefitting from humanitarian aid for propagating freedom of expression and democracy, has never shown any hint of public responsibility as to publicly and officially answer the charges brought against it. As a result, this piece has been penned in order to issue a warning to all those who care for the freedom of expression anywhere around the world and especially in Iran, and also to demonstrate that how public resources meant for good intentions can be used in achieving dubious ends when there is no informed and responsible supervision.
*P.S. As soon as this article appeared on Iranian.com, the article referencing Abbas Khosravi Farsani’s claims immediately disappeared from the cyberspace. Fortunately, I had already frozen the entire article into a PDF file, and have uploaded it here and – just in case – here so that the readers can have free access to it.