Iranian authorities block Iran's most widely used messaging app

Expression

Human rights organisations called on the Iranian authorities to overturn a judicial decision to block the Telegram messaging app in Iran. The popular messaging app is currently used by an estimated 40 million Iranians and has soared in popularity since its release in 2015. 

According to a statement released in May 2018 by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and ARTICLE 19, on 30th April 2018, the Iranian Judiciary issued an order to block Telegram in Iran, and ordered Iran's Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to ensure the app was completely inaccessible to people in Iran. The order was issued on national security grounds. According to one government source, the decision to block the app was partly driven by its role in coordinating violent anti-government protests in 2017 and 2018 which left 21 people dead in clashes with Iranian security forces. In a statement released by the Iranian Judiciary's website justified blocking the app because of its role in:  

“...[circulating] propaganda against the establishment, terrorist activities, spreading lies to incite public opinion, anti-government protests and pornography.”

Other international human rights groups have continued to condemn the decision. As the most popular messaging app in Iran, the arbitrary restriction on its use has been viewed by many as an unwarranted restriction on freedom of expression. In particular, Iranian authorities' concerted effort to muzzle online spaces for dissent symbolises the closing spaces for independent activism within the country. In a statement, the US based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) commented on the ban by saying

“The state’s face off with more than 40 million users of Telegram in Iran, regardless of the discontent created by the move, shows the Iranian leaders’ deep fear of the free flow of information and their reckless pursuit of censorship at any cost.”

CHRI also recently released a report documenting the astonishing impact of the ban on Iranians. Given its widespread use, Telegram formed the backbone of communication across all walks of life in Iran. Of particular concern is the Iranian authorities' increasing monopoly on communication infrastructure which is compounded by restricting independent platforms like Telegram.

Peaceful Assembly

Iranian authorities continue to restrict the right to freedom of assembly. In recent weeks, protesters have been arrested, injured and had criminal charges brought against them. In one example, on 16 May 2018 in Kazeroon, south west Iran, two people were reportedly killed and several wounded when Iranian police used live ammunition against a crowd who had gathered in front of a police station to protest arrests of family members. Hundreds of local residents mobilised after controversial plans emerged to split the city, based on access to water resources. Following the arrest of several protesters, members of their family and local community gathered outside of the police station where they were being held to demand their immediate release when police used live ammunition to disperse the crowd. At least two people were confirmed killed in the incident with a further 48 injured. Fifteen individuals were reportedly arrested for their participation in the protest. 

In a separate incident on 28th May 2018, fifteen people were arrested in Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad after attempting to negotiate with Iranian authorities over a water dispute. Around 200 people had gathered in Yasouj to protest against actions by the city’s water and sewage authorities who had diverted water from the local river. After fifteen representatives were chosen from the protesters to liaise with Iranian authorities, they were promptly detained by Iranian security forces. The recent water drought has affected up to 97% of the country, which many groups claim has been exacerbated by poor management of scarce water resources.

On 6th June 2018, Shima Babaei, an activist peacefully protesting against Iran's compulsory hijab rules reported that she has been served with further charges in addition to breaking the hijab rule. As we've previously covered in the CIVICUS Monitor, Babaei was one of the activists who publicly denounced the legal requirement for Iranian women to wear the hijab. The 24-year-old civil rights activist said she and her husband are also being prosecuted for their participation in demonstrations in Tehran on December 30, 2017, and rallying in support of political prisoners on December 21, 2017. Babaei is currently being held in solitary confinement. 

Finally, as we previously reported in the CIVICUS Monitor, up to 300 members of the Dervish community who had protested in Tehran in February 2018 remain in detention. On 18th June 2018, one of the participants, Mohammad Sallas was executed by Iranian authorities for his role in the mobilisation. In addition to serious concerns  over the integrity of the judicial process that sentenced him to death, there is also credible evidence to suggest that Sallas was tortured during his detention.