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Free Speech In Iran: Crime And Punishment

On Roozbeh Mirebrahimi's blog, you'll find a photo of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a podium speaking to students at Columbia University. The caption beneath the photo reads: "He is really a big liar."

In 2004, another online political statement led to Mirebrahimi's arrest in Iran. He frequently reported stories perceived as critical of the regime. Among them was the story of Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian journalist of Iranian descent who tried to photograph a very controversial Iranian prison. She was detained, reportedly raped, and died in prison of a fatal head wound.

The Iranian government went to extremes to suppress any coverage of the incident within its borders, and to punish those who reported on it. For two months, Mirebrahimi was kept handcuffed and blindfolded.

"I was in a jail cell only big enough for my body," he tells

He was charged with eight crimes ranging from propaganda against the state to providing interviews to foreign media outlets. His trial is currently underway in absentia, and if convicted, he could face life in prison if he returns to Iran.

Mirebrahimi's story is unfortunately not unusual in the current political environment of that nation.

Abi Wright of the Committee to Protect Journalists says that bloggers and online journalists are routinely threatened or jailed for publishing ideas and images that in some way criticize the Iranian regime.

"We've discovered a new trend. Judges are handing down sentences but not necessarily sending the journalists to jail. This hangs over their heads and creates a self censorship," she said.

The government in Iran has made many efforts to curb access to the Internet to stop the spread of reformist ideas and Western media among the general population, as well. At times it has blocked Google and YouTube, and forbidden service providers to offer the high-speed connections that make photo and video blogging easier.

Still, Internet use has only continued to climb in Iran. A 2007 survey found that more than 7 million Iranians use the Internet in their daily lives, up from just 250,000 back in 2000. As blogs proliferate, they are harder to find and police.

Mirebrahimi now blogs from New York City, where he is currently the International Journalist in Residence at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. But in his place, many young Iranians are using the Web to spread a message of reform.

Last week, President Ahmadinejad spoke before the student body at Tehran University.

"Students should feel responsible in the international arena. Today's world needs them," he said, in remarks to begin the new academic year.

Many of the students heeded that call. Outside the auditorium, hundreds chanted "Death to the Dictator."

After the speech, several went home and posted photos and blog entries about their day protesting at the university.

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