Politically-related Iranian prosecutions often take place in near secrecy, with unclear charges morphing and changing over time. It doesn't get any easier to work out the motivations of prosecutors when the charges are connected to technology.
Web developer Saeed Malekpour and IT professionals Vahid Asghari and Ahmad Reza Hasempour, who are all accused of hosting illegal content online, were sentenced to death in early January, according to several news reports. But what kind of content? The prosecutor claim that the network was, in part, pornographic, but Asghari has also been accused of spying in collaboration with blogger Hossein Derakshan, and wrote that he was forced under torture to state that Hossein was an agent of the CIA.
What we do know is Asghari, Hasempour, and Malekpour were all targeted because they were seen as capable of hosting, or assisting with the building of websites. They have been described by the Iranian government and state media as "The Strayed Three" (the "Mozzelin 3"). Iran has a policy of dismantling "destructive" online networks, and the three appear to have been rounded up as part of this crackdown.
It's not even clear whether the three were involved in illegal hosting. Malekpour's wife, Fatima Eftekhari, has stated that his involvement was limited to writing a generic uploading script which was then used by the publishers of adult websites.
If true, that means that in Iran, putting your name to an open source utility could leave you detained, beaten, and tortured, and then sentenced to death.
The charges against Iran's web developers are so vague as to make it difficult for CPJ to ascertain whether their work was directly involved in news reporting. But as any blogger knows, independent web hosts and developers are as key a part of creating a web presence as the writers and reporters. Creating an atmosphere of fear by arresting and torturing independent hosters of content is as damaging to press freedom as rounding up the operators of printing presses would be in an earlier age.