Iranian Officials Increase Pressure on Telegram App to Comply With Censorship Policies
Iranian Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi has vowed to block “anti-revolutionary channels” on the Telegram messaging application after the popular Amad News channel reported that a state official’s daughter was arrested for spying.
The rules of @telegram prohibit calls for violence and hate speech. We rely on our users to report public content that violates this rule.
— Pavel Durov (@durov) October 8, 2017
Complying with the Iranian authorities’ censorship policies would be a serious violation of freedom of expression by Telegram, and could result in the migration of a significant number of its reported 40 million Iranian users.
On October 9, Tehran Prosecutor General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, stated that the Islamic Republic was determined to shut down Amad News “for conducting anti-revolutionary activities through Telegram.”
An independent news channel based outside of Iran with more than 640,000 followers, Amad News is one of the most popular Iranian-content channels on Telegram. Under the motto of “Awareness, Struggle, Democracy,” the channel frequently publishes reports critical of Iranian state policies.
On October 3, Amad News published a report claiming that Judiciary Chief Sadegh Larijani’s daughter, Zahra Larijani, had been arrested on suspicion of spying for the UK.
Larijani denied the report the next day.
“The recent rumors about me and my family are not worthy of a response,” he said in a speech at the University of Judicial Sciences and Administrative Services in Tehran on October 4. “These attacks on the judiciary are retaliation for punishing those behind the 2009 sedition.”
Iranian officials refer to the peaceful mass protests against the disputed result of the 2009 presidential election, which came to be known as the Green Movement, as the “sedition.”
Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi stated in an interview with the Iranian state broadcasting organization, abbreviated as IRIB, on October 4 that his agency “has not seen any signs that would lead to suspicions of spying by any member the Larijani family.”
On September 26, 2017, Tehran Prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi announced that a lawsuit had been filed in an Iranian court against Telegram CEO Pavel Durov, claiming that the app is servicing terrorists and spreading immoral content in Iran.
In a tweet to Durov on October 8, Telecommunication Minister Jahromi wrote, “We support the free flow of information, but we condemn the publication of hate and false information in cyberspace.”
The internet and social media apps are heavily restricted and censored in Iran, with hardliners in the government viewing any form of internet freedom as a threat to the Islamic Republic.
Numerous sites, including independent news outlets, have been filtered by Iran’s state censors and dozens of journalists and social media activists have been punished with long prison terms for posting their views online.
According to a report published in September 2017 by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), an internet censorship monitoring organization, 121 of the 886 sites blocked by the state between September 2014-17 were news-related.
Iranian print and broadcast media outlets are also forced to comply with strict censorship rules, including bans on prominent former presidents, or risk arrest and imprisonment.
In July 2017, outgoing Telecommunications Minister Mahmoud Vaezi revealed that he had come under pressure by Iran’s main internet censorship body, the Taskforce to Determine Instances of Criminal Content, to shut down social media channels that supported rival candidates during the presidential election in May.
“We are in contact with officials at Telegram, but they refuse to shut down political channels,” he said. “For instance we, like you, would like to see Amad News shut down. They criticize the Telecommunications Ministry the most.”
Reformist activist and former political prisoner Mostafa Tajzadeh has mocked state officials for trying to shut down Telegram.
“With an annual budget of more that a billion dollars, IRIB has 40 channels broadcasting 24 hours a day and yet it has been defeated by a Telegram channel with more than 600,000 members,” he wrote on his Telegram channel on October 9.
In January 2016, Asadollah Dehnad, the acting director of the Telecommunications Company of Iran, stated that the average Iranian spends more than two hours a day on Telegram. “That means many times more than watching [state] television,” he said.