A popular coffee shop in Tehran is closing down rather than comply with a government order to install telescreens, er, surveillance cameras.
Cameras have proliferated in Tehran coffee shops since last summer. “Most people thought they were part of the security systems installed by owners to protect against theft,” one Tehrani said. However the cameras are now required to be on during work hours and police have demanded access to the tapes, according to several business owners.
The practice became public when Café Prague, one of the most popular coffee houses in Tehran, closed down last week after its owners refused authorities’ orders to install a video system. Café Prague, a stone’s throw from Tehran University in the heart of the capital, has been a sanctuary for students, activists and young intellectuals since its opening in 2009.
A few weeks ago, Tehran’s morality police and security authorities told the café’s proprietors to install a minimum of four surveillance cameras on the premises as part of state efforts to tighten civic monitoring and security. The owners decided they would not do so. Recognising that this would result in further harassment and eventual closure, they shut down the cafe themselves to protest against the new surveillance measures.
The cafe’s owners recognized the Orwellian parallel:
“We always knew this day would come and, in the midst of Tehran’s grimy winter, our end has finally arrived in spite of our many attempts to stay afloat,” read a statement posted on the Café Prague Facebook page.
“But as much as it pains us and as much as we will miss our friends and all of you who stood by our side in the past four years, we take comfort in knowing that we at least didn’t let Big Brother’s glass eyes scan and record our every step, minute and memory from dawn till dusk.”
The café’s closure is a significant loss for Tehran’s academic and cultural life. During its short existence, Café Prague offered much more than just coffee and free wi-fi; it played host to a number of social and political events, from photo exhibitions supporting local artists to music performances and vibrant left-leaning discussions on workers’ rights.
Regardless of how you feel about surveillance cameras installed by government in public areas, or by business owners in private areas, there’s a huge difference between that and being forced by a regime to install them for “civic monitoring.”
Just as they fear poetry, the Islamic Republic’s rulers fear the free exchange of ideas and opinions in coffee shops. Despite their aggressive bluster, they are increasingly scared of their own people.