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People protest in Tehran, Iran December 30, 2017.  © 2017 Reuters

(Beirut) – The Iranian judiciary’s blocking of the messaging application Telegram is an unjustifiable restriction on freedom of expression and access to information, Human Rights Watch said today. With more than 40 million users, Telegram had become the main social media platform for Iranians

On April 30, 2018, Mizan Online News Agency, the judiciary’s news agency, reported that the prosecutor of the second branch of Tehran’s Culture and Media Court had ordered all internet service providers to block access to Telegram and its website, effective immediately. On the morning of May 1, the Iranian Students News Agency, ISNA, reported that the mobile operators Iran Cell and RighTel had begun blocking users’ access to Telegram.

“Iran is again stifling access to information to try to make its problems go away, but censorship should never be used to protect leaders from scrutiny,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Blocking Telegram is just another stain on Iranian authorities’ already dismal record on freedom of expression.”

The Culture and Media Court prosecutor said that Telegram had created a “safe haven” for “international terrorist organizations,” permitting the coordination of Iranian protests in late December, 2017, and early January, 2018, as well as the deadly attacks claimed by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) at Ayatollah Khomeini’s shrine and the Iranian parliament in Tehran on June 7, 2017. The attackers killed 17 people and injured dozens more.

The judiciary also said that Telegram has helped enable crimes including “disruption of national unity,” “improper data collection,” insulting the sacred,” “acting against national security,” and “propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

On December 31, during protests that led to widespread demonstrations in several parts of the country, Iranian authorities temporarily blocked Telegram and the popular social media application Instagram. President Hassan Rouhani ordered Telegram unblocked on January 4 and Instagram on January 13.

Since late March, several officials had indicated support for blocking the platform. On March 31, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, chairman of Iran’s parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, announced in an interview that Telegram would be blocked soon and that the decision to ban access to Telegram had been “made at the highest levels of government.” Boroujerdi said the government would issue its own messaging app later this month, citing “national security” as the reason Telegram would no longer be accessible. Following his statement, Iranian state TV and other state-affiliated platforms started advocating using domestic versions of messaging applications.

Given Iran’s record of surveillance of activists, there are serious concerns over privacy protections for users on such applications, Human Rights Watch said. In an attempt to reassure the public about respect for privacy, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, said in an April meeting with the authorities that violating people’s privacy in messaging applications is “against sharia,” or Islamic law.

However, several activists have since reported hackers’ attempts to break into their social media accounts. Iran’s intelligence services have a documented history of using hackers to access activists and journalists’ accounts and private information.

During the protests that took place after the 2009 disputed presidential elections, Iranian authorities blocked the social media platforms Facebook and Twitter, which remain blocked, along with hundreds of other websites.

During the presidential elections in 2017, Rouhani advocated greater access to information. On December 19, during a national conference on implementation of citizens’ rights, Rouhani said that his communications minister “promises that he will not press the filtering button.” On April 3, the president said that his administration’s approach had been to break the monopoly of messaging applications, not to block and filter cyberspace. “Do not bother people with these kind of words,” Rouhani added. On May 1, the “Administration’s Information Council” issued a statement reaffirming the administration’s commitment to “protecting citizens' rights to choose and confronting any filtering or monopoly in the field of social networks.”

The statement also emphasized that the outcome of an issue that impacts the lives of tens of millions of Iranians should not be determined by a selective judicial decision. The statement did not clarify, however, if the government is challenging the judicial order.

“Five years into office, Rouhani has done very little to protect citizens’ rights,” Whitson said. “He is going to disappoint many supporters if he fails to protect even a popular messaging application from hard-liners’ attacks.”

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