In a surprising move, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani has warned his country's hardliners that "Standing against public demands is against the law and religion."
He also suggested that political parties should be allowed to have their own media outlets, independent of the government-controlled state TV and admitted that the popularity of social media in Iran is an outcome of government control on media, and questioned Iranian state TV's monopoly on broadcasting.
On a few occasions Rouhani has challenged some of the fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic's ruling system or indirectly the Supreme Leader himself, but his remarks on Monday can still be considered an unexpected move.
Speaking at a meeting with the Minister of Telecommunications and Information Technology on Monday January 21, Rouhani said in an apparent allusion to Supreme Leader Ai Khamenei and other hardliners, "Some of us think we have divine authorities and can issue any command to rule those who dwell on the Earth," adding that "This shouldn't be the case."
After his reelection in 2017, Rouhani questioned the principle of divine legitimacy, saying that it should depend on“people’s will and invitation”. This was seen as a clear jab at the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his supporters who ascribe purely religious legitimacy to his political role.
Rouhani admitted that filtering and censorship of social media have not been effective. Saying that new communications technology has many benefits and pose limited threats, Rouhani said, "We cannot cut off the impact of modern technology on people's life," adding that "resistance against new technology and new developments is an outdated approach."
Rouhani was indirectly referring to hardline officials who have banned a large part of social media in Iran and are exerting pressure to ban the remaining outlets. Rouhani himself has been accused by his political rivals to have issued the order to ban Telegram, a popular social messaging service, following widespread anti-government protests in Iran in early 2018.
Meanwhile, Iran’s president criticized "those who think they can convey any rumor, lie, or libel via social media to secure their personal or political interests."
He also called on Iranian users to watch their language on social media. "I have read that Iranians use a really bad tone on social media," he said.
Referring to limitations Iranian authorities impose on the use of cell phones and social media, Rouhani said: "Let us not create a forbidden tree that would lead to youngsters' unnecessary curiosity."
Voicing his opposition to "filtering" which makes social media and online content inaccessible to public, he said, "This was a wrong approach. We thought we can issue an order to filter social media. But what do we do after filtering?" he asked, adding, "Now we know clearly that filtering is not the solution."
Rouhani said: "The solution is neither filtering, nor in leaving the cyberspace to the mercy of radicals," adding, "We need to introduce the people to media literacy."
Elsewhere in the meeting, Rouhani said: " We do not have media freedom in Iran. We have only a state-owned radio-television. So, everyone has rushed to social media" for information. "This would not have been the case if we had a variety of 500 media outlets. People want to say everything on social media because we do not have any other media outlets."
Rouhani then questioned the state TV's exclusive right to broadcasting. "If all political factions and groups had their own media where they could talk about their ideas officially and in their own name, then we would have clearly known who is who, and who says what, and who is supporting which party," adding that in the current situation, "sometimes you don't know who is saying a certain thing and on whose behalf. This should be corrected."
He further elaborated on the state TV's exclusive right, he said: "Monopoly is not useful in media or technology. It will not work," adding that "monopoly creates corruption and its output will be of low quality."
Rouhani said that use of cyberspace and social media empowers the country's economy, creates social and economic justice and brings about transparency by revealing corruption.
The role of women in Iranian society was another topic in Rouhani's speech. He called for a more active role for women in the society. This was in sharp contrast to the ideas of hardliner clerics who have said women should be confined to their homes and the best they can do is to rear their children.
Rouhani stressed that "in some areas women can even work better than men," adding for instance that "financial affairs could be handed over to women, rather than to those who create problems," alluding to major embezzlements which have invariably been committed by men.