Iran Wrestles With Social Media Freedom

Supporters of creative freedom have to be heartened by a recent snapshot of events in Iran, which suggest that president Hassan Rouhani, elected one year ago in a repudiation of conservatism in the nation, really does seem to want people in his country to be happy.

The reformist pol is fighting conservative hardliners trying to crack down on social media after a “Happy in Tehran” tribute video to Pharrell Williams, shot with an iPhone, went viral on YouTube, prompting six arrests on May 21 and unleashing a judicial assault on local Internet access.

“#Happiness is our people’s right. We shouldn’t be too hard on behaviours caused by joy,” Rouhani Tweeted from his English-language account @HassanRouhani. While Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are all officially banned for ordinary folks in Iran, top officials have open access to social media.

News of the May 29 release of “Happy in Tehran” video director Sassan Soleimani (the last detainee set free) spread rapidly in the country after Soleimani, a former Rouhani photographer and campaign consultant, sent a self-portrait to popular New York-based expatriate satirist Kambiz Hosseini, known for his Jon Stewart-like snarks about Iranian current events. Soleimani’s selfie was posted on Kambiz Hosseini’s Facebook page, which has more than 830,000 followers.

Meanwhile, Iranian courts were ordering Instagram be blocked over privacy concerns.

The Rouhani government also has tried to smooth over a cultural faux pas made by actress Leila Hatami, above, who was on the Cannes jury. Hatami had been photographed giving 83-year-old fest prexy Gille Jacob a peck on the cheek as a French form of greeting. But the gesture was slammed by fundamentalists as un-Islamic. Culture Minister Ali Jannati, who has been revitalizing the country’s film industry, tried to put things into perspective.

“I think she was taken off guard, even though such behavior is not acceptable,” he said.

The hard-liners accuse Rouhani of promoting what they deem “decadent” Western culture. But the president doesn’t see it that way. “We should see the cyberworld as an opportunity,” he said, as quoted by the official IRNA news agency. “Why are we so shaky? Why don’t we trust our youth?”

Politically, that’s not such a bad strategy: 60% of the population is under 30 — and besides, most of them know how to bypass official barriers to social media anyway.

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