As reported by Sean Emerry,
In July, a UC Irvine student was photographed watching a campus rally about the opposition to the Iranian government. Five months later, she says her relatives in Iran were visited and questioned by government officials who had apparently seen the photo on the Orange County Register's Web site.
Expert and local organizers describe the visit as part of an Iranian government effort to use the Internet to identify protestors and harass family members.
A worldwide movement that has relied heavily on Web sites such as Twitter and Facebook to express opposition to Iranian authorities has found they aren't the only ones taking advantage of social networking and media coverage; Iranian government forces are apparently using those same tools to hold citizens accountable for their relatives' actions outside the country.
The now-former UCI student, whose photo and name ran along with the July article, recently contacted the Register and successfully asked that the picture be removed from the publication's Web site. The woman – who said she was an observer at the rally, but not a participant, and is not being named due to her safety concerns – said she was frightened by news of the visit and worried for her relatives' safety.
Experts and protestors said they have heard similar stories from other Iranian expatriates.
"The expectation was that the crackdown would stop people from protesting. They obviously have been concerned about social networking, Facebook and all of that," said Nasrin Rahimieh, Director of the Samuel Jordan Center for Persian Studies and Culture at UC Irvine. "The link they are making between the protestors themselves and the family has been there since the beginning."
As a result, local protest organizers say they have taken pains to remind people that their photos will be taken if they attend public rallies and advise them to cover their faces if they wish to remain anonymous.
"People know that if they come and there are photos taken at a protest, in Iran they are identifying us," said Arezo Rashivian, who helps organize weekly protests at Jamboree Road and Barranca Parkway in Irvine. "I know for a fact that I can never go to Iran unless it becomes a free country."
Demonstrations began with the disputed Iranian elections in June, when protestors alleged that incumbent Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had stolen the election from opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. The UCI rally in July came after the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, who became a symbol for the country's turmoil when she was fatally shot in the chest during a protest in Iran.
In a country where imprisonment and beatings of opposition members has been well documented, questions about the activities of family members, even those living in other countries, can be particularly chilling for Iranian residents.
"The only leverage they have is within Iran, so they obviously intend to mortify people, to show they will be identified and known," Rahimieh said of the Iranian government. "I wouldn't say they would necessarily have to go as far as imprisonment. Intimidation would work."
Citing concerns for her safety, Register Editor Ken Brusic agreed to remove the photo of the former UCI student after editors conferred with her and an Iranian expert, despite the paper's normal bias toward "leaving content be."
With the ubiquity of online search engines making months- or years-old news stories only a click away on computers worldwide, the number of requests for editors to "unpublish" past stories has increased dramatically, Brusic said. Terry Francke, a First Amendment expert and general counsel of Californians Aware, said he understood the Register's decision to remove the photo."If a news organization is satisfied that the threat is authentic, then I would certainly find no problem, ethically, morally or professionally, with at least taking a photograph down, where the photograph itself is not essential to the news that was conveyed," Terry Francke said. "The thorny problem becomes, do you just stop photographing Iranian student protestors now that you are aware someone is combing through them?"