Iranian activists deploy social media to raise justice issues

Death of Afghan six-year-old sparks online campaigns pressuring state’s hardliners

Setayesh Ghoreishi was just six when she died. The Afghan girl was allegedly raped and killed by a 17-year-old, who then destroyed her body with acid.

Her case could have disappeared in the Iranian court system: Afghan migrants, who number about two million, often face discrimination by the judiciary and other institutions.

Instead, her death provoked a social media storm, with an online outpouring of grief and a show of solidarity with Afghan migrants. A vigil for the murdered child was organised via Telegram, a popular messaging app in Iran, and eventually the judiciary took notice and promised to fast-track her case.

The public outcry over the murder is an example of how social media has allowed Iran’s civil society to hold accountable hardliners in the judiciary and other state bodies without directly challenging the regime.


“Those people who were suppressed [for pro-democracy activities] are not dead and live under the city’s skin, [and] have created a vibrant information society,” said Hamid-Reza Jalaeipour, a reform-minded sociologist. “They react to anything that concerns them but are not covered by official media.”

Using social media to highlight social, economic or cultural issues also allows activists to avoid political activity that can carry considerable risk and has made little difference in recent years. It has the tacit backing of centrist president Hassan Rouhani.

“This is a really effective force and officials directly or indirectly have to address public demands,” said Jalaeipour.


Another successful social media campaign is helping a detainee of the notorious Evin prison. Omid Kokabee, an Iranian physicist associated with the University of Texas, has been in the jail since being arrested on charges of espionage in 2011. He is currently suffering from kidney cancer, and Iranians blame the regime for delaying treatment two years ago that could have helped prevent its spread.

A #freeomid campaign has prompted a response from Gholam-Hossein Mohseni- Ejei, a hardline spokesman of the judiciary who has denied any failure on the part of the authorities but said the prisoner’s 10-year sentence could be reconsidered depending on his medical condition.

Other online protests have successfully campaigned against the release on bail of a man charged with torturing his wife and two daughters in the northeastern city of Mashhad, and the arrest of a woman dog trainer in Tehran who had reportedly been cruel to the animals.

A social media outcry over the decision by hardliners to dispatch 7,000 undercover police to ensure women keep their hair properly covered has meant the policy is unlikely to be fully implemented. Campaigners have called for the forces to instead investigate corruption among politically connected individuals.

The case of Setayesh Ghoreishi continues to be discussed online, focusing on issues of teen violence.

“Looking at the Instagram account of the killer makes you shake with fear,” one post said. “Many people around us look like him. Are we all potential killers?” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016