By Mahmoud Hakamian
On Tuesday, a report by Buzzfeed News made reference to a “looming” ban on the photo and video-sharing social media platform Instagram, following an upsurge in official statements portraying the site as a conduit for criminal activity and a source of moral decay. If the ban does go into effect, Instagram would join a number of other popular social media sites that have already been blocked by the Ministry of Technology, including Twitter, Facebook, and the instant messaging app Telegram, which joined the list last spring, following mass protests that ostensibly used Telegram for organizing.
The existing restrictions on social media and the internet lead Buzzfeed to question how Instagram has survived up to this point. That question is further amplified by the article’s depiction of the platform as serving a different and more important role in Iranian society than in Western societies. Buzzfeed described Instagram as “a battleground for free expression,” providing a showcase for lifestyles that are considered anti-religious or morally corrupt in the hardline theocracy, as well as giving women an opportunity to present themselves to the world without their legally mandated head coverings.
But on the same day as the Buzzfeed report, Agence France Presse gave one possible explanation for why the Iranian regime has been slow to impose a ban on the photo-sharing platform. It quoted Iranian Information Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari-Jahromi as saying that such a ban could actually cause additional problems in Iranian society, primarily because merchants and businesses have come to rely on it for both marketing and sales. This, the minister argued, as made Instagram “an important tool in their everyday life.”
Azari-Jahromi’s defense of the platform does not discount the efforts of his colleagues in the regime to demonize it. Indeed, he acknowledged Instagram’s “threats” but added that “filtering” the site would not solve the problem in and of its. Rather, he speculated that that strategy “might even intensify them.” This remark may have been referring to the tendency of Iranian internet users to circumvent official bans using virtual proxy networks. And Buzzfeed cites this as one reason why some Instagram users have expressed skepticism about the ban actually going through.
But this is not to say that such bans have no effect. The Buzzfeed article points out that “paying for and turning on a VPN is one more hurdle for internet users,” which would reduce the user base significantly, as in the case of Telegram and other such services. Furthermore, bans are generally accompanied by stepped-up enforcement measures and concerted efforts to direct citizens away from the existing platform and toward domestically-made clones, if available. But these alternative services are much more vulnerable to monitoring by regime authorities, and this is a significant point of concern when even the pre-ban monitoring of Instagram has resulted in numerous arrests.
Buzzfeed specifically pointed to one large-scale sweep by Iran’s cyber police, which took place in May 2016 and targeted persons who were involved in a “Western-style” modeling industry on Instagram, as well as people who posted images of themselves dancing, or flaunting the country’s forced veiling laws. And this was only one of several large-scale law enforcement operations having to do with online activity, to say nothing of individual arrests of web users.
While the Buzzfeed article looks at the prospective ban on Instagram and asks, “Why not earlier?” there is a similar but separate question to ask: “Why now?”
May be the answer be in remarks by Jafari Dowlatabadi, the public prosecutor for Tehran, when he had pointed that a labor activist and political prisoner Esmail Bakhshi used Instagram.
On January 4, Bakhshi used Instagram to post an open letter describing the torture he had experienced in prison after being arrested for his part in a protest and strike at the Haft Tapeh sugarcane factory. His disclosure helped to bring widespread domestic and international attention to Bakhshi’s case, although it also led to him being re-arrested and confronted with new charges after authorities conducted a sham investigation and committed to denying the prisoner’s claims.
Eleven days after Bakhshi’s Instagram post, Dowlatabadi spoke to state media and described Instagram usage as equivalent to committing “90 crimes.”
This goes to show that while the public notoriety surrounding Bakhshi’s case may be a contributing factor, the push to filter Instagram is a longstanding trend, just as was the case with Telegram and other platforms.
Given the well-established popularity of the last remaining major social media platform, these state media reports are unlikely to have a very significant impact on public perceptions of Instagram. But they may go a long way toward establishing the regime’s official rationale for following through on a ban. Meanwhile, the resulting public attention may give the supposedly moderate administration of President Hassan Rouhani an opportunity to manage its response.
Rouhani repeatedly expressed support for a lifting of restrictions on the internet and an overall reduction in censorship while campaigning for both his first and second terms of office. But as CHRI pointed out, he has “adopted a passive position” regarding the looming Instagram ban, just as he had done earlier with the Telegram ban and associated restrictions on public expression.
Azari-Jahromi, the information minister, is one representative of the administration, and his effort to highlight prospective problems associated with the ban is arguably emblematic of the administration’s passiveness. While his heavily qualified criticism may be held up by supporters as an example of pushback against hardliners, it will have little practical effect. Indeed, this is perhaps by design.
In many cases of expansions in hardline policies and restrictions, the administration has sought to deny responsibility for actually pursuing an alternative outcome. Accordingly, CHRI notes that when asked by a journalist on January 3 about whether he supports a judicial order for the filtering of Instagram, Azari-Jahromi responded by deferring to the judicial body that issued it and saying, “How can I respond to an issue I am not in charge of?”