Reactions to Iranian ‘Happy’ Arrests

ASL 19 researchers discuss last week’s arrest of young Iranians who made a video cover of Pharrell William’s song “Happy” on YouTube.

On Wednesday May 21, news of the arrest of six young Iranians who made a cover version of Pharell William’s hit music video “Happy” based in Tehran began circulating on social media sites, news outlets, and blogs. Prior to the arrests, thevideo amassed 30,000 views on YouTube (the original video was apparently removed or made private at the time of the arrests; however, it was reposted by another YouTube account).

In a video clip accompanying the news of the arrests on Tuesday night’s Iranian national news broadcaster, the six detainees were interrogated and confessed to their wrongdoings in front of Tehran’s Chief of Police Hossein Sajedinia, even before charges were officially brought against them.  The clip, which is framed as a “story of the honor that was lost in the mirage of an acting audition,” includes a stern warning from Sajedinia to those who threaten the honor of youth and negatively influence them. He notes the swiftness of his men who, within eight hours, identified and arrested the “culprits.” Many comments on the news clip of the confession suggest that it was staged for the purpose of deterring the public from cyber activism, in other popular online campaigns, such as those like My Stealthy Freedom, which features pictures Iranian Women without their veils in public places.

The arrests and the confession video garnered instant reactions online. On Twitter the hashtag #freehappyiranians was created. Even President Rouhani and Pharrell took to their Twitter accounts to express their concerns about the arrested Iranians. President Rouhani showed his support by reposting a 2013 tweet saying: “#Happiness is our people’s right. We shouldn’t be too hard on behaviors caused by joy.” Pharrell also expressed his dismay by tweeting: “It’s beyond sad these kids were arrested for trying to spread happiness.”

Most comments on social media and news articles express sadness and disappointment with the seemingly paradoxical arrest of the youths for their display of happiness. However, some claim that the arrests were legitimate since the girls were without their required hijab (against Islamic law) and dancing with men (also against the law). This may explain why no actions have been taken against the creators of three other versions of “Happy in Tehran” videos, as those involved are dressed according to the code of the Islamic Republic.

The Iranian artist community was also quick to react to the news. Hours after reports of the arrests spread, Iranian cartoonist Touka Neyestani addressed the event with the following cartoon.

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On the arrest of Iranian Happy Video dancers; by Touka Neyestani

These arrests were made just a short week after Rouhani denounced practices of censorship as a means to fight the advances of technology. In his speech at a national conference for information and communication technologies, Rouhani championed the right of Iranian citizens to access to the World Wide Web and noted that Iranian youth should be trusted.

Rouhani’s comments at this conference are in line with many of his previous comments regarding the freedom to access information, as his promise of internet access formed a significant part of his 2013 election campaign platform.  However, since his election, few tangible improvements have been observed by users inside Iran. For example, many experienced the filtering of communication applications such as Tango, Viber, and slower internet speeds.

While reports state that the young Iranians have been released on bail, underlying issues remain. Although the arrests, on the surface, primarily present a matter of censorship and online freedom, they further demonstrate the way in which Iranian authorities work and use tactics to intimidate Iranians and hinder those who want to participate in the global online community. This subtle yet potent form of control and regulation, which has been pervasive in the Iranian regime, effectively represses many battles for rights and freedom before they even commence.

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Featured Photo Credit: From Justice for Iran Twitter

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