Iran officials threatened with punishment for not censoring the internet amid protests

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 January, 2018, 10:19pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 January, 2018, 6:16am

On Friday, it was also declared by the head of the country’s cybercrime committee that Iranian ministers should be punished if they deliberately failed to censor online content by “troublemakers and enemies”.

“The order to block all channels on encrypted messaging service Telegram, that in recent days incited the population to violence and trouble, was transmitted by judicial officials to the telecoms ministry a long time ago, but unfortunately nothing was done,” said Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, according to reports by local media.

“If it is proven that officials voluntarily refused to take the necessary measures to prevent the activities of troublemakers and enemies, they must be punished,” added Khoramabadi, who is also deputy to Iran’s chief prosecutor.

Iran did block access to Telegram, which protesters have used to share videos and plan their rallies. Estimates suggest the app has 42 million users in Iran alone and its disruption appears to have affected the protests.

Those remarks followed comments by Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami that called on the state to build its own social media.

Khatami, a hard-line cleric, made the remarks while leading Friday prayers in Iran’s capital, blaming people taking advantage of the apps to fuel the unrest that followed days of protests over the country’s flagging economy.

His comments show the power the internet has wielded amid the demonstrations that began on December 28 and quickly spread across the country.

“Cyberspace was kindling the fire of the battle,” Khatami said. “When cyberspace was closed down, the sedition was stopped. The nation does not support a social network that has its key in the hands of the United States.”

Amid the unrest and anti-government rallies that began last week, Iran has also seen three days of pro-government demonstrations, with crowds in the tens of thousands. A similar rally followed Friday prayers in Tehran.

On Thursday, Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said about 42,000 people at most took part in the week of anti-government protests, saying they went on as long as they did because of the “leniency, restraint, tolerance and interaction” of the government. He did not elaborate.

Fazli’s comments marked the first government estimate of participation in the protests and appeared timed so authorities could contrast it against the mass crowds brought together for the pro-government demonstrations.

US President Donald Trump’s administration has acknowledged looking at ways to help Iranian protesters access social media, but has not made any decisions on how to do so.

Meanwhile, Trump himself has repeatedly tweeted praise for the protesters, infuriating Iranian officials.

At least 21 people have been killed in the unrest surrounding the protests, which began last week and were said to be about Iran’s flagging economy before spreading to cities across nearly all of Iran’s provinces. Authorities have described the protests as waning.

Khoramabadi claimed there were 8,500 channels on Telegram with content that was against “national security, the values of Islam and public morale”.

“The former minister and the current minister have resisted in the face of orders” to block these channels, he said. “Unfortunately, certain people, either voluntarily or involuntarily, have assured the troublemakers that no one will press the button of filtering to stop their illegal actions.”

More than 41 million Iranians have smartphones in the country of 80 million, and at least 25 million use Telegram daily. For many it has become the main source of news and a way of bypassing Iran’s highly restrictive media environment.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the US and Israel on Friday of meddling in Iran.

“We cannot accept that some countries – foremost the US, Israel – to interfere in the internal affairs of Iran and Pakistan,” Erdogan told reporters before heading on a trip to France.

“It is turning the people against each other in these countries. It’s a shame that we have seen this done in many nations.”

Russia also accused the US of interfering by calling a UN Security Council meeting on the wave of deadly protests in Iran.

“The United States continues to interfere both openly and covertly in the internal affairs of other countries. They do so shamelessly,” Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.

Iran on Thursday directly blamed a CIA official for the protests. Khatami repeated the CIA accusations during his sermon, saying Israel and Saudi Arabia backed the American efforts that used Iranian exile groups, like the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq.

State television reported on Friday that Iranian security forces arrested three suspected MEK members in the city of Boroujerd, some 300km southwest of Tehran. It said the team was involved in “many sabotage activities” without elaborating.

Khatami called for internet apps to have their servers in Iran and the Iranian government to oversee their operations. He also said those who burn Iran’s flag should face the death penalty.

Many in Iran learned of the flag burning at protests through online videos.