Iran Cracks Down on Instagram Celebrities as It Tightens Noose on Freedom of Speech and Expression
Investigations by the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) indicate that dozens of Iranians with large followings on Instagram—including athletes, fashion models and actors—were summoned by security officials in 2019 and in some cases charged with crimes for the content of their posts.
Although most were ultimately released on bail, many were forced to hand over control of their Instagram accounts by revealing their passwords.
Some of the targeted individuals, fearing jail time, ultimately suspended or severely limited their online posts as well as removed old posts that could be interpreted as “immoral” according to state dictates.
Instagram is the only major US-based social media network app that citizens are legally allowed to use in Iran. Due to traditional forms of advertising being severely censored or expensive in Iran, many Iranians heavily rely on the app for marketing their products and services.
“These individuals are being monitored by the police and if they commit any violations, they will be dealt with in collaboration with the judiciary,” warned the chief of Iran’s cyber police (FATA) Gen. Vahid Majid in an interview with state-funded Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) on July 29, 2019.
“In some cases, individuals have been summoned, which caused them to change their behavior,” he added.
The security establishment’s crackdown on popular Instagram accounts is not new. Freedom of speech and expression is severely restricted in Iran.
Anyone in the country can be summoned, arrested, or prosecuted for engaging in peaceful online activities deemed by the state as against Islamic law or values.
In May 2016, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps announced they had arrested 170 people who had posted content related to fashion design and photography on Instagram.
The following year, in July 2017, the police in Hormozgan Province reported arresting 46 people who were allegedly involved in a “large modeling ring” on Instagram.
Different sources with knowledge of the recent crackdown told CHRI that it’s impossible to know exactly how many Instagram “celebrities” have been targeted since many are too afraid to speak out about their cases.
All the sources that spoke to CHRI for this investigation did so under the condition of anonymity to protect their security.
Security forces sporadically launch crackdowns on people in Iran with large social media followings, but CHRI documented an uptick since April 2019, especially against those who post social and political commentaries about politically sensitive issues including whether the hijab should be compulsory in Iran.
“Some of these people have been told that they have to wear the hijab [in their online photos] and some of them have decided to leave Iran,” a source with knowledge of the cases told CHRI.
CHRI has learned that most of the targeted individuals have been summoned to Branch 21 of Guidance Court, which according to the judiciary’s official news agency, Mizan, “is in charge of acting firmly against cultural crimes as well as social and ethical immoralities.”
Forced Account Closures and Seizures
One source who has a large following on Instagram said some of the summoned individuals were not able to regain access to their accounts after the authorities took control of them and changed the passwords, emails and phone numbers associated with the accounts.
“The authorities claimed they would give back [control of] the pages in six months,” the source said. “They want to ensure that these influential people won’t speak against the Islamic Republic… They create so much fear that these people don’t dare ask to regain ownership of their accounts.”
The source identified at least 14 Iranian Instagram celebrities who had been detained in the past three months and ordered to stop all their online activities.
“The authorities have told them that they cannot go online and post pictures of themselves and if they don’t want their page to be deleted, they have to cooperate,” added the source.
The account of one of the detainees, a man in the salon business who wove men’s hair into dreadlocks, was shut down after he was arrested.
Articles 36, 37 and 38 of Iran’s Computer Crimes Law requires law enforcement agents to acquire warrants before taking any action against alleged criminal digital content.
Their targets must be notified in advance of the action unless there is a strong suspicion of criminal activity.
Detainees are allowed to file complaints but many choose not to due to fear of reprisals by the authorities.
Article 47 states, “Within 10 days, suspects can submit written complaints to the judicial authorities against actions undertaken by agents in confiscating data… Such complaints will be evaluated out of turn and any decisions can be appealed.”
Unlawful Monitoring of Private Communications
In some cases, followers of targeted Instagram pages may not be aware that the authorities have confiscated the account, leaving them unknowingly vulnerable to surveillance by state agents.
Article 48 of the Computer Crimes Law prohibits surveillance without a warrant but state agents often violate this law without repercussions.
Instagram Celebrities Forced to Delete Content
CHRI has found that in some cases the authorities have posted a message on targeted fashion-focused Instagram accounts that states, “Any design, production and advertising of clothing must be in accordance with frameworks established by society.”
In other cases, Iranian Instagram “celebrities” including Venus Kamrani, Yasssii, and Niloofar Behbudi have suddenly posted notes on their profiles notifying their followers that they are “in compliance with the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
It’s unknown whether they posted the notes on their own accords or were ordered to by the authorities.
Several famous female actors have also been summoned, questioned and in some cases held for several hours because they had posted photos of themselves on their Instagram pages with their hair uncovered.
All women in Iran are required to wear a hijab in public.
In at least one case, an actor not only removed the photos but also posted a note informing her followers that she should not have posted them in the first place.
CHRI has also learned that in some cases, security agents have blackmailed Instagram celebrities after gaining access to their phones.
“These people can be put under pressure if they have photos [on their phones] of their private parties where alcohol was consumed,” a source with knowledge of such cases told CHRI. “They get cornered into situations where they cannot escape.”
Muslims are not allowed to possess or consume alcohol in Iran but many citizens ignore this law in their private lives.
“Many celebrities are not active [on Instagram] anymore,” added the source. “They’ve stopped making comments or are deliberately vague, which obviously shows they cannot speak their minds under pressure.”
The fashion industry source added: “Everyone is quiet, even the ones who used to be very active. It’s very strange. There’s a certain despair and sadness everywhere. Everybody is dealing with some sort of problem and can’t do anything. Some of them have to play along for the sake of their wife and children.”
In rare instances, some well-known Iranians have explained the situation to their followers.
On July 14, 2019, female boxer Shabnam Shahrokhi wrote:
You have seen fewer posts on my page about sports these days and it’s not because of my lack of interest… The only reason is that being yourself and being sincere can be considered a crime that could lead to imprisonment from three months to two years!
Honestly, I always liked to show you how not to give up, not to forget your interests in life, how to reach all your goals with hard work, how to have a healthy, hopeful, happy life through sports, with my actions, not with pictures heavily edited with Photoshop…
But it seems like I should not be myself anymore. I have to wear clothes that do not go with the season and put something over my head that looks ridiculous and unreal. But I’m not that type! It’s so strange that a piece of cloth on your head and body can determine whether you are a good, bad, decent or indecent woman!
In any case, I wanted to say that I’m exercising every day as usual and I haven’t forgotten the things I love. It’s just that I can’t pretend like I’m acting in a movie, unless others insist…
Shahrokhi won silver medals in kickboxing at world martial art championships in Portugal in 2014 and Spain in 2015. But many of her kickboxing photos and videos have disappeared from her Instagram page.
In some cases, authorities have ordered people to stop engaging in their professions due to the content of their Instagram posts.
On July 2, 2019, theater director and actor Aida Keykhaii posted a note on her page announcing that she and fellow theater director Mohammad Yaghoubi had been banned from working because of their Instagram posts:
“Because of many subversive actions that have drained our passion, Mohammad and I are not permitted to work these days, which of course we know is what the authorities want. When we asked why, they said it’s because of our Instagram posts. Banned because of Instagram posts? I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”