Admins of 12 Reformist Telegram Channels Arrested in Iran Ahead of May 2017 Election
Iranian security forces arrested an unknown number of administrators of 12 reformist-aligned Telegram channels on March 14-16, 2017, deleted the channels’ content and changed their names.
A number of those who were arrested have since been released, but Ali Heydarvalizadeh, the admin of the Majma Eslahtalaban (Reformist’s Forum) and Ali Ahmadnia, the admin of Eslahtat News (Reform News) remain incarcerated at an unknown location, the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) has learned.
The authorities told Hedarvalizadeh’s family to inquire about his case at the Culture and Media Court, an informed source told CHRI.
Used by an estimated 20 million people in Iran, the Telegram messaging application has emerged as a powerful online tool for sharing and spreading information and news.
Users are increasingly turning to the app before elections for uncensored news about moderate and reformist camps, which are usually drowned out or censored from appearing in traditional media.
The Islamic Republic’s next presidential election is set for May 19, 2017.
The admins of the Havadaran Rouhani (Supporter of Rouhani), Zendehbad Eslahat (Long Live Reform), Daneshjooyan Eslahtalab (Reformist Students) and Hamian Khatami Dar Yazd (Supporters of Khatami in Yazd) channels have also been arrested.
No agency has claimed responsibility for the arrests.
“If the Intelligence Minister (Mahmoud Alavi) does not provide a reasonable explanation for the arrest of the channel admins, Parliament would pursue the course of impeachment,” warned Deputy Parliament Speaker Ali Motahari on March 15.
Article 24 of Iran’s Constitution calls on the government to protect free speech in the media. However, the administration of President Hassan Rouhani, who will run for a second term in May, has so far remained silent.
Some of the arrested Telegram channel admins had voluntarily registered their channels with the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
The registration requirement was likely implemented to aid hardline security forces in identifying reformist opinion-influencers.
“We wanted to carry out our activities legally and that’s why we registered,” one of the admins, who asked not to be identified, told CHRI.
In December 2016, the Supreme Cyberspace Council, responsible for making internet policy, ordered the administrators of Telegram channels with more than 5,000 members to register with the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
By January 4, more than 700 channel admins had complied, Iran IT News and Analysis reported at the time.
The internet and social media apps are heavily restricted and censored in Iran, with hardliners viewing any form of internet freedom as a threat to the sanctity of the Islamic Republic.
Asked by reporters on March 7 if the government was under pressure to block Telegram prior to the election, Telecommunications Minister Mahmoud Vaezi said, “The pressures have always been there, but what we have tried to do is keep cyberspace a clean place for everybody to use.”
“God willing, the conditions will be such so that people would be able to use tools that increase information,” he continued, adding, “The Intelligence Ministry has a better grasp over cyberspace than we do.”
In a 2013 report published in Persian, CHRI detailed the ways in which Rouhani benefitted from using Telegram to spread his campaign promises prior to his election victory that year.
With the next election looming, hardliners and conservatives are pressuring security agencies to crack down on reformist Telegram channels to mute their influence.
On January 18, 2017, the head of the prosecutor’s office announced the arrest of 22 people associated with reformist-aligned Telegram channels in Hormozgan Province.
Those arrested were accused of “spreading falsehoods, disturbing public peace, creating fear and anxiety among people and spreading immoral content and unlawful propaganda.”
On January 30, conservative theologian Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirzai called for limiting access to Telegram and Instagram because of their potential impact on the election.
Other hardline figures and institutions, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the judiciary, and theological centers in the city of Qom have also recommended that Telegram be restricted or banned.
*This article was modified on April 13, 2017 to reflect the number of channels that were taken over.