Just days after Iran’s president denounced Internet censorship as “cowardly,” six young Iranians were arrested and forced to repent on state television Tuesday for the grievous offense of proclaiming themselves to be “Happy in Tehran,” in a homemade music video they posted on YouTube last month.
By uploading their video, recorded on an iPhone and promoted on Facebook and Instagram, the group was taking part in a global online phenomenon, which has resulted, so far, in hundreds of cover versions of the Pharrell Williams song “Happy” recorded in more than 140 countries.
“Happy in Tehran” was viewed more than 165,000 times on YouTube before it attracted the attention of the police and was made private.
In a speech over the weekend, President Hassan Rouhani argued that Iran should embrace the Internet rather than view it as a threat, Reuters reported. His remarks were also summarized on a Twitter account updated by his aides.
“We must recognize our citizens’ right to connect to the World Wide Web,” the president said, according the official IRNA news agency. “Why are we so shaky? Why have we cowered in a corner, grabbing onto a shield and a wooden sword, lest we take a bullet in this culture war?” he asked.
“Even if there is an onslaught, which there is,” he added, “the way to face it is via modern means, not passive and cowardly methods.”
The arrest of the young dancers, and their televised public humiliation, angered Iranians at home and abroad, and seemed to support President Rouhani’s case that such crackdowns served only to make the Islamic Republic of Iran look weak in the culture war being waged online.
During their appearance on state television, the six said that they had no idea the footage would be broadcast. The report also included a warning from Tehran’s police chief to the youth of Iran not to be seduced by the filmmakers behind viral videos. The officer, who referred to the exuberant video as “a vulgar clip which hurt public chastity,” also claimed that it had taken the authorities only a matter of hours to identify and arrest the participants, even though the video was uploaded a month ago.
The arrest of the young people came after the dancers had shared links to reports on their video in Western publications including The Huffington Post and Le Monde.
In an interview with the news site IranWire last month, one of the dancers said that the women in the video had “covered our hair with wigs” in an attempt to conform to Islamic dress codes. She also said that the aim of the participants was in part promotional, “to tell the world that Iran is a better place than what they think it is.”
“Despite all the pressures and limitations,” she added, “young people are joyful and want to make the situation better. They know how to have fun, like the rest of the world.”
My colleague in Tehran, Thomas Erdbrink, observed that, according to Iran’s constitution, the judiciary is a separate power, “often at odds with government polices.” These arrests, he noted, “again illustrate that.”
Late Tuesday, as news from Tehran reached the man whose song had inspired the video, Mr. Williams shared a link to the report on Twitter and expressed his sadness.