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Last Updated: Friday, 12 December, 2003, 10:31 GMT
Iran's president defends web control
By Aaron Scullion
BBC News Online staff in Geneva

Iran's policy of blocking access to certain websites has been defended by the country's authorities at the UN digital summit.

Iran's President Mohammad Khatami
Iranian authorities claim only sites not compatible with Islam are blocked
Speaking in Geneva, Iran's President Mohammad Khatami insisted that the country only blocks access to 240 "pornographic and immoral" websites.

He said the ban only applies to sites that are incompatible with Islam, and a government official added that "all political sites are free".

Online censorship in Iran became a big issue at the summit after hundreds of Iranians flooded a website covering the event with complaints about restricted access.

'Criticism is OK'

The web has become an important alternative method of communication in Iran, with the authorities often imposing heavy penalties on any net service providers that fail to block access to their list of restricted websites.

More than 10,000 sites are banned in Iran, according to reports.

But when questioned by BBC News Online over this figure, President Khatami insisted the number was much smaller - just 240 - and that the authorities were not blocking pro-reform sites.

Our youth and adolescents during high school, and university, are using weblogs very extensively. Access for youth to the internet is very satisfactory
President Mohammad Khatami

"We are exerting greater control over pornographic and immoral websites that are not compatible with Islam", President Khatami said.

"But we are not censoring criticism. Criticism is OK.

"Even political websites that are openly opposed to the Iranian Government ... are available to the Iranian people."

President Khatami added that Western broadcasters, such as the BBC, would not be blocked in Iran.

'No punishment defined'

Iran's minister for information technology, Ahmad Motamedi, added that there was "no punishment defined" for people publishing material the government did not agree with, despite the detention of Sina Motallebi, an Iranian blogger and journalist, earlier in 2003.

Dr Motamedi first insisted he knew nothing of the story, and then said the writer "has been arrested but not in relation to weblogs."

The minister offered an example, "If somebody is a weblog writer, and kills somebody, should they not be arrested?"

President Khatami also spoke of the popularity of weblogs in his country, saying "I do not use weblogs - but I do not use many good things.

"Our youth and adolescents during high school, and university, are using weblogs very extensively. Access for youth to the internet is very satisfactory."

He added that, after English and French, more weblogs were written in Persian than any other language.

'Freedom not chaos'

Iran's president had previously told the UN summit's main session that "principles of democracy" were key to a knowledge-based society.

Screengrab of a site banned in Iran
Sites criticising government are frowned upon in Iran
Speaking to journalists, President Khatami added, "democracy runs in tandem with freedom of expression, but this does not mean that everything goes.

"Freedom of expression and freedom of thought are the preconditions of a democratic society. But freedom does not mean chaos".

President since 1997, Mohammad Khatami held the post of minister of culture and Islamic guidance in the 1980s.

He was eventually forced to resign over accusations that he was too permissive in sanctioning books, magazines and films which some considered subversive.


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