AS member states met at the UN building in Geneva on 17 February 2005 to prepare for the next World Summit on the Information Society, a small delegation of cyber-dissidents held a press conference in a coffee shop downtown. Their purpose: to highlight the repression of internet users in some of the countries playing a central role in the upcoming UN Summit. Zouhair Yahyaoui from Tunisia - the country where the World Summit will be held - told more than 40 foreign journalists in the café how he had been jailed for 18 months for poking fun on his website at Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Jay Bakht, representing the Association of Iranian Blogwriters (Penlog), described how 10,000 Iranian websites - including websites containing online personal observations and journals known as blogs - were being blocked.
‘It’s a lie! They are porn sites,’ said Iranian delegate, Javad Safsei.
‘Then why do you put Iranian bloggers in prison?’ asked Jay.
‘Oh we don’t,’ said the delegate. Jay then showed him a paper detailing the arrest of two bloggers, Arash Sigarchi and Mojtaba Saminejad.
‘Could you turn off the cameras, please?’ called out the delegate before assuring Jay: ‘When I go back I’ll do something about it.’
‘When he went back, Sigarchi got [sentenced to] 14 years,’ says Jay. ‘That guy only posted one article remembering the Summer of 1988 genocide when [Iran’s then religious leader] Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the death of Iran’s political prisoners. Some had already been in prison for 8 to 10 years. Between 24,000 and 30,000 were killed.’
Sigarchi is a newspaper editor. He joins at least seven other jailed journalists who published their work online. ‘Iran is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. Two years ago [the Iranian authorities] shut down 20 daily newspapers. If you are a passionate journalist, you’re not just going to go home and sit on your bottom. The alternative is to go online.’
But this internet crackdown sweeps more broadly than just through the media. ‘The mullahs stopped contraception 26 years ago after the  revolution. Iran is now the youngest country in terms of population - 75 per cent are under 25 [years old]. Three years ago loads of Iran’s young people went on to the internet. They could get a nickname and say things they hadn’t been able to say - young men making personal observations about being gay and young women talking about sex. There are now 50,000 bloggers inside Iran and 10,000 Iranian bloggers internationally.
‘The Muslim authorities in Iran want to close this down. They still believe that no-one should go out, no-one should drink, no-one should associate with the world. [President] Khatami plays reformist. But there’s only one real party. He’s a dictator. He and the hardline holy leader Ayatollah Khamenei believe that if [the people] are given an inch, they will take a mile because they’ve been repressed for 26 years. Countless internet sites have now been blocked by the authorities, who have installed a filtering system on most internet service providers and blocked access inside the country to most weblogs and political sites.’ In the run-up to the presidential election next month, such censorship is likely to intensify.
‘There were two options: sit down and take it, or fight it actively.’ And fight it Jay did. He was a founding member of the Association of Iranian Blogwriters (Penlog). Now boasting 100 bloggers - 40 from inside Iran - the Penlog site offers its predominantly Farsi writers a safe haven for their personal observations about what happens in Iran and the world. It lobbies against Iranian online censorship. And, most importantly, Penlog also ‘provides software so that anyone can bypass the proxy server in Iran to find information and talk online. It’s like a web browser and looks like Google. We wrote the program and every hour we change the domain name so that the authorities can’t block it. It gets millions of hits.’
Jay is an unlikely activist. ‘I started my blog three years ago. It wasn’t political - it was discursive and personal. To be honest with you, I was born in the US. My parents were born in Iran. I only lived in Iran for a year when I was 13. My family went for a holiday after the  revolution, and we got stuck there for a year. I work in IT - teaching at Uni for three years and now with an international bank.’
Why then - from the comfort of his home in Central London, England - did he choose to become a cyber-dissident? ‘The internet should be a great source of information available to everyone. I’m part of the blogging community. When the US invaded Iraq and the Western media dominated the information flow, I tried to read between the lines. A doctor was posting a day-by-day account from Baghdad about what was happening there, like: “We don’t want America here,” and “I saw a school shot down today.” If he didn’t write for two days, I’d write to him and say: “What’s happening?” To contribute to our understanding of the world you don’t have to be a professional journalist or someone well known. As long as you tell the truth. That is the power of the blog.’
More information: http://jaylondoner.blogspot.com
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7