On Wednesday, the free press advocacy organization Reporters Without Borders released its annual World Press Freedom Index, which confirmed that Iran remains one of the least safe countries for journalists. In a ranking of 180 countries based on various indicators of press freedom, Iran occupies the 164th slot, in line with the rankings that it has received since the Index was first compiled more than 20 years ago.
Iran Human Rights Monitor quotes the NGO as saying that the Iranian regime “keeps a tight grip on most media outlets and never relents in its persecution of independent journalists, citizen-journalists, and media outlets.” The report also specifies some of the tactics used by Iranian authorities toward this end, including arbitrary arrests and jail sentences, as well as threats and intimidation directed not only against reporters but also against their families.
Reporters Without Borders also specifies that while a handful of independent journalism outlets continue to operate within Iran, they are systematically deprived of useful resources while also remaining under constant threat of forced closure or other reprisals for reporting that appears particularly challenging to the regime or its leadership. The report suggests that this situation has put “citizen journalists” at the forefront of “battles for freely-reported news and information and for political change.”
But unsurprisingly, Tehran is taking significant measures to restrict the work of those citizen journalists, as well. Leading tactics in this effort include the obstruction, filtering, or aggressive monitoring of social media networks. Both Facebook and Twitter have famously been banned throughout Iran since they were deemed responsible for much of the activist organizing that underlay the 2009 Green Movement.
Now, the regime has formally moved to extend this ban to the popular Telegram instant messaging app, which had reportedly come to be used by upwards of half the country’s population, including the organizers of mass anti-government protests in December and January.
The Associated Press reported on Thursday that Iranian internet service providers had been ordered to cease allowing their users to access Telegram. However, the same report highlights the prevalence of virtual proxy networks and other technical workarounds among Iran’s young web users. These have allowed many users to evade the bans on Twitter and Facebook, and it is expected that some users of Telegram will adopt the same practice. In fact, the AP reports that when Telegram was temporarily blocked during the January protests, about 10 percent of users continued to access it anyway.
Nevertheless, the newly imposed, ostensibly permanent ban will present new challenges for citizen journalists, activist organizers, and anyone else whose communications are deemed objectionable by the clerical regime. Experts interviewed by the AP anticipate that even among those who continue to access the service, the speed of communication will slow down significantly. At the same time, it remains to be seen how many Telegram users will put forth the effort to maintain access to it, and how many will acquiesce to the government’s efforts to shift online communications toward domestic alternatives.
In this interest of facilitating that shift, authorities introduced a new service called Soroush at roughly the same time as the Telegram ban went into effect. The domestic service is reportedly a clone of Telegram in many ways, but with servers inside the country which make it much easier for the regime monitor communications over its network.
Such monitoring is commonplace in the case of communications that evade the bans on Facebook and Twitter, and this has laid the groundwork for numerous cases of political imprisonment in recent years. But Telegram has long posed a particular challenge for the regime because of better encryption of user data and because of the company’s resistance to Iranian ultimatums regarding the relocation of user data to servers inside the country. The perceived security of the app was a major contributor to its popularity, and this is expected to be a major barrier to the widespread adoption of Soroush or any other domestic alternative.
This is something that was highlighted by Al Jazeera on Thursday in its reporting on the Iranian regime’s introduction and active promotion of Soroush. Additionally, the report’s details regarding the platform suggest that it is intended to serve another role beyond facilitating government monitoring and undermining the freedom of citizen communications. Soroush reportedly includes a unique package of message stickers that include images of heavily veiled women holding banners that proclaim “Death to America,” that criticize Israel, and that praise Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Such features point to Soroush being designed with the specific intention of expanding the reach of government-backed propaganda, in a media landscape where state-linked television, radio, and print outlets are already predominant. Certain consequences of that dominance were highlighted on Wednesday by Scott Lucas of EA Worldview. The reporter notes that he accepted an interview request from a leading Iranian news outlet, the Iranian Labor News Agency, in part to test the limits of what could be said in such interviews.
While Lucas found that ILNA did not obstruct all of the points that he expected it to, he also noted that the outlet had freely changed several phrases when printing his responses to interview questions. A reference to Iran’s ballistic missile program, for instance, was changed to the more positive-sounding “missile defense program,” and a reference to chemical weapons use by the Iran-backed Assad regime in Syria was deleted entirely.
Such alterations, even if applied somewhat selectively by Iran’s censorship authorities, point to the dangers presented by any further consolidation of state control over Iran’s media and communications landscape. And those dangers are rather more obvious when one considers the ways in which Iranian state media has been used to smear various advocates of social and political reform, and to justify politically motivated arrests, some of which carry with them the threat of a death sentence.
One of the latest targets of such smears was Kaveh Madani, the deputy minister of the environment who had returned to Iran from an academic position in Britain in order to take on the role. Madani recently resigned his post and fled the country after months of consistent pressure from hardline authorities. The CHRI detailed some of this pressure on Thursday and pointed out that even after his return to London, affiliates of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps have continued to attack Madani in the media and to portray him as a foreign spy, albeit without any evidence to support that accusation.
It is easy to conclude that had Madani not fled, or if he were to return to Iran once again, he would be at risk of arrest, possibly leading to torture and execution. Indeed, the erstwhile environmental official was targeted for arrest in February alongside several other environmentalists. And while Madani was released, another of the arrestees, Iranian-Canadian university professor Kavous Seyed-Emami, died under suspicious circumstances while in detention.