Renewed Pressure in Iran to Block Instagram After Activist’s Post About Torture Makes Headlines
A labor activist’s widely read Instagram post alleging he was tortured while in the custody of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry was never fully investigated but one judicial official did respond by suggesting that the app should be blocked to prevent a “spotlight” from being put on the government.
According to Human Rights in Iran, Tehran Prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi, Smaeil (also referred to as Esmail) Bakhshi’s statements—which caused public outcry in Iran and led to several former political prisoners stating that they had also been tortured—are illegal. Speaking on a state-funded radio program in Tehran on January 15, 2019, Dowlatabadi claimed that using Instagram is equivalent to 90 different crimes. Without mentioning Bakhshi by name, the prosecutor pointed to the publication of “rumors” about torture as an example of the alleged “crimes” occurring on Instagram:
“Today we see these attempts to disturb the public and undermine the reputation of others by publishing falsehoods. They publish a rumor and throw the country into turmoil. One day they make claims about suicide and torture and put the spotlight on all branches of the state.”
The hard line prosecutor’s angry reaction comes on the heels of ongoing statements by Iranian officials indicating that Instagram—used by an estimated 23 million people in Iran—will soon be “filtered” (banned and blocked) throughout the country.
Bakhshi, a representative of the Haft Tappeh sugar mill worker’s union in the city of Shush, southwestern Iran, posted the open letter on his Instagram page on January 4, 2019.
Ten days after he stated that he’d been repeatedly beaten during his 25 days in detention and left in his cell in the Intelligence Ministry’s detention center in the city of Ahvaz without medical care, the judiciary launched a “two-day” sham investigation that excluded eyewitnesses and exonerated the Intelligence Ministry.
Bakhshi was re-arrested on January 20 along with freelance labor affairs reporter Sepideh Qoliyan. Both individuals are at grave risk of suffering further harm while government officials remain focused on preventing statements like theirs from becoming public again via social media.
Is Iran Poised to Filter Instagram?
The Tehran prosecutor is not the only official openly talking about further restricting internet freedom and free speech in Iran by filtering a widely used social media network.
Three weeks ago, Javad Javidnia, the deputy prosecutor general in charge of cyberspace, said a judicial order had been issued to filter Instagram. While it remains to be seen whether the order will be implemented, what is known is that the government of President Hassan Rouhani has adopted a passive position on the issue despite having advocated for relaxed internet restrictions in the past.
For example, when the Minister of Information and Communications Technology Mohammad Javad Azar Jahromi was asked by a reporter on January 3, 2019, if he supports the order, he replied, “How can I respond to an issue I am not in charge of?”
Despite a January 5 statement by an adviser to the minister, Sajjad Bonabi, declaring that “filtering Telegram is unlikely,” hardline judicial officials continue to advocate blocking the app while Rouhani officials point fingers at others.
The Rouhani administration’s Telecommunications Ministry could legally challenge the judicial order but has failed to do so thus far and has made no indication that it intends to exercise the option.
The government also failed to act when the judiciary filtered another popular app in Iran last year. When Telegram—used by an estimated 40 million Iranians—was filtered in April 2018, six Iranian lawyers filed a petition to overturn the ban while the Rouhani government remained silent.
Rouhani Admin Refuses to Take Action, Deflects Responsibility
Instead of working to keep Instagram accessible in Iran, the Telecommunications Ministry, which operates under President Rouhani, has focused on avoiding responsibility for the act of censorship. Recently, ICT Minister Jahromi suggested that private internet service providers (ISPs) should be in charge of filtering online content and apps.
In an interview with an Iranian IT magazine on January 15, 2019, Jahromi said, “The law clearly says that companies providing internet services are in charge of enforcing filtering.”
The notion of ISPs being legally allowed to filter online content has been around since 2016 with the launch of Iran’s National Information Network (NIN), which gives the government newly expanded abilities to control Iranians’ access to the internet and monitor online communications.
That year, some officials began suggesting that online content should no longer be filtered by the state-owned Telecommunications Infrastructure Company (TIC) but rather by private ISPs.
Nevertheless, investigations by the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) indicate that no ISP had filtered online content until May 2018, when the Telegram app became inaccessible throughout the country.
Blocking Telegram was the ISP’s first experience of filtering online content but they have not filtered any other content since then. In fact, cyber censorship appears to remain the responsibility of the TIC, a division of the Telecommunications Ministry.
Pointing to filtering actions by the TIC, Jahromi said on January 15: “In 2016, we initiated an effort to go back to the letter of the law and hand over filtering capabilities to ISPs and we still hold the opinion that they should be in charge of carrying out filtering in accordance with judicial orders and decisions by the Working Group for Determining Instances of Criminal Content (WGDICC).”
The group Jahromi was referring to is the principal body charged with making internet filtering decisions in Iran.
On January 5, Bonabi, who is both an advisor to the Telecommunications Ministry and a TIC board member, confirmed in an interview with the Iranian magazine Peivast that the ministry is determined to allow ISPs to filter content.
“We are currently in the process of moving filtering equipment to internet access operators,” he said.
Judiciary Aims to Limit App Usage Throughout Iran
While announcing the judicial order to filter Instagram, Javdinia, the deputy prosecutor general in charge of cyberspace, also stated that app usage levels were being measured by the Supreme Cyberspace Council (SCC), a 27-member body handpicked by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. This was the first time an official had publicly mentioned anything about app usage being monitored by a state body.
By making the comment, Javdinia was also suggesting that the SCC has set limits for app usage in Iran, meaning that when the number of users on a particular app exceeds a certain level, the council could decide to filter it.
To date, the Iranian government has not publicly announced any app usage limits. It remains to be seen whether it will do so in the future.
State Media Attacks Instagram, Government Promotes Iranian Replicas
Amid swirling rumors that Instagram may soon be blocked in Iran, the country’s main state-run broadcasting organization, the Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), has been airing anti-Instagram reports.
In January 2019, the IRIB’s current affairs program, “20:30,” which is produced in collaboration with members of the country’s security establishment, released a series of reports about an alleged abusive affair between a young Iranian girl tricked into non-marital sex by a boy she had met on Instagram.
In doing so, the program, which ignored the many cases of girls being sexually abused or raped in Iran without the use of Instagram, was implying that the app is a tool for stealing the virginity of innocent girls in the Islamic Republic.
In another report, Rouhollah Momen-Nasab, who was in charge of digital media at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance during the Ahmadinejad administration (2005-13), claimed on the same show that a 12-year-old girl had become pregnant after meeting a boy through Instagram.
Again, the program focused on Instagram and ignored most of the many events that took place independently of the app before the girl was impregnated.
This was not the first time Momen-Nasab has made unsubstantiated claims while advocating more online censorship and restrictions for average citizens in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Since Rouhani came to power, the self-described cyber specialist has also repeatedly advocated for certain apps to be blocked in Iran while acting as a consultant for the Parliamentary Committee for Cultural, Arts and Media Affairs.
For their part, Iranian officials have repeatedly expressed support for citizens only using apps that were developed in Iran and maintain their servers there (so state agencies can easily access users’ private data).
In fact, since the National Information Network was launched, Iranian officials have been on a mission to support the development of replicas of popular foreign-based apps by companies based inside the country.
This policy resulted in the rapid growth of Telegram Talaeii, which was developed based on the open source code version of the original Telegram app.
Despite being labeled as “unsafe” by the Telegram company due to the Iranian government’s ability to access private information including users’ passwords and communications on the app’s servers, Telegram Talaeii has an estimated 35 million users in Iran.
Lauding the development of homemade apps, Abolhassan Firouzabadi, the secretary general of the SCC, said on a state-run TV show on January 20, “In two years, we will have domestic versions of foreign messaging apps such as Instagram and Twitter.”
One Iranian-made clone version of Instagram is Lenzor, which has received five billion tomans (approximately $1.2 million USD) in financing from the Telecommunications Ministry to expand its operations.
This suggests that Iran has been laying the groundwork for blocking Instagram in much the same way it blocked Telegram—first by funding an Iran-based company to build a replica app, then by preparing the public for the app to be blocked by attacking its virtues, and finally by blocking the app and sitting back and watching as millions migrate over to the Iranian-made version.