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With Eye on Telegram, Internet Body Says All Social Media Apps Must Store Data Inside Iran

The Supreme Cyberspace Council in session.CHRI - To improve Iran's ability to monitor and censor online content and user activity, the country's Supreme Cyberspace Council (SCC) has ruled that all foreign social media networks must store domestic traffic data inside Iran.

Iran's Judicial Official Threatens Rouhani's Telecommunications Minister With Criminal Charges Over Telegram

PayvandNews - Iran's Deputy Prosecutor General Abdolsamad Khorramabadi has threatened to take Telecommunications Minister Mahmoud Vaezi to court for his alleged refusal to block thousands of channels on Telegram, the country's most widely used private messaging application.


"For reasons known to the telecommunications minister, we have so far been lenient in our response to the ministry's failure in carrying out judicial orders," said Khorramabadi on July 26, 2017. "From now on if the minister does not carry out the orders, we will definitely file criminal charges against him after receiving permission from the prosecutor general and senior judicial officials."

 

Days earlier Khorramabadi, who is also the secretary of Iran's main internet censorship body, the Taskforce to Determine Instances of Criminal Content (TDICC), accused the telecommunications ministry of refusing to block "a list of about 8,000 channels on the Telegram network with criminal content against the people's sacred and national values."

 

Vaezi, who was appointed to his post by President Hassan Rouhani, rejected the notion while cautioning the judiciary against ordering channels blocked solely for the channels' political affiliation.

 

"He thinks everything should be blocked," said Vaezi about Khorramabadi in a meeting with a group of conservative members of Iran's Parliament on July 15. "But based on what Iran and the world has learned from experience, we believe that shutting down more sites will reduce opportunities and push people to use filter breakers."

 

The digital tool enables users to access blocked or censored parts of websites.

 

"During the [May 2017] elections, they asked us to close down some of the social media channels that supported one [political] faction or another," added Vaezi without indicating which authority made the demands. "What do they [the channels] have to do with criminal content?... We are in contact with officials at Telegram, but they refuse to shut down political channels."

 

Khorramabadi Changes His Mind

 

Meanwhile Khorramabadi reversed his longtime position on Telegram hosting its servers in Iran.

 

Iranian officials have repeatedly tried to convince Telegram to move its servers onto Iranian soil in order to monitor, restrict and control domestic user activity, which they continue to attempt with the internet. Telegram claims it has denied all such requests, but is currently using technological infrastructure in Iran.

 

In May 2016 the prosecutor threatened to block access to Telegram unless the company agreed to move its servers into the country. However, on July 26 Khorramabadi said Telegram's official presence in Iran would legitimize dependence on the foreign-owned social media network.

 

"Telegram's entry into Iran with its servers would consolidate [foreign] infiltration and espionage in the country," said the conservative prosecutor. "The impact of Telegram's current unofficial and uncontrollable activities is even worse. Both scenarios mean dependency on foreigners in cyberspace."

 

Khorramabadi's recent comments coincide with Telegram's installation of content delivery networks (CDN), caching servers that allow faster delivery of multimedia data, inside Iran.

 

Khorramabadi went on to criticize the fact that Iranians are allowed to access Telegram channels such as the popular and independent Amad News as well as channels belonging to the outlawed Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) and the group that calls itself the Islamic State-both of which have committed terrorist attacks in Iran.

 

"Daesh [ISIS] coordinated everything through Telegram for its terrorist attack on our Parliament [on June 7, 2017]," he claimed. "It is not acceptable to any Iranian for ISIS to post a video on Telegram of its attack on Parliament without us taking technical action against it."

 

... Payvand News - 07/31/17 ... --

 

Iran's Telecommunications Minister Pledges To "Get Rid of" Foreign Social Media Despite Past Failed Attempts

CHRI - President Hassan Rouhani's Telecommunications Minister Mahmoud Vaezi has refuted criticism that he has been unwilling to block online content deemed immoral by state authorities and has pledged to "get rid of" foreign-based social media networks despite previous failed attempts. At the same time, the minister admitted that some of the demands being made of him by state officials outside the Rouhani government are politically motivated.



cover page of Peivast magazine

The minister was responding to criticism by Assistant Prosecutor General Abdolsamad Khorramabadi, who claimed on July 15, 2017 that the ministry had stalled the blocking of "a list of about 8,000 channels on the Telegram network with criminal content against the people's sacred and national values."

The internet and social media apps are heavily restricted and censored in Iran, with hardline state officials viewing any form of internet freedom as a threat to the Islamic Republic.

Khorramabadi, who is also the secretary of Iran's main internet censorship body, the Taskforce to Determine Instances of Criminal Content, accused the ministry of failing to act despite "several judicial orders."

On July 18, the telecommunications minister fought back, stating that many of the demands have nothing to do with criminal content. He also blamed Telegram, a messaging and social media network, for refusing to comply with state requests to ban certain channels and content.

"We are in contact with officials at Telegram, but they refuse to shut down political channels," said Vaezi in a meeting with a group of conservative members of Iran's Parliament.

"For instance we, like you, would like to see Amad News shut down," he added. "They criticize the Telecommunications Ministry the most."

With "Awareness, Struggle, Democracy" as its motto, Amad News is an independent Persian-language news channel on Telegram with more than 460,000 members. The channel often publishes content critical of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

"During the [May 2017] elections, they asked us to close down some of the social media channels that supported one [political] faction or another," said Vaezi, without indicating which authority made the demands. "What do they [the channels] have to do with criminal content?"

Telecommunications Minister Mahmoud Vaezi

With some 40 million users in Iran, Telegram serves as a non-state-controlled source of news and analysis operating alongside the country's severely censored official news media.

Centrist President Rouhani and reformist politicians, which are not allotted anywhere near the same amount of airtime on state media as conservatives, have been increasingly using Telegram to reach the electorate.

Recognizing the app's popularity, hardliners have consistently tried to ban or filter Telegram, while also setting up their own channels to reach voters.

The Rouhani government has meanwhile repeatedly called for less state control over the internet.

This has invited the scorn of not only the agencies that police cyberspace, but also hardline politicians seeking to unseat him.

During his meeting with the MPs, the telecommunications minister announced the launch of four domestically produced social media networks-Salam, Soroush, Wispi and BisPhone-as state-endorsed alternatives to foreign-owned networks currently used in Iran.

"We are waiting for our domestic social media operators to give us assurances that they are ready to launch and then we will get rid of foreign social media networks," he said on July 18 to the conservative MPs.

"It belittles the Telecommunications Ministry to see people going on foreign social media networks," he added. "None of my colleagues are happy about it."

According to Vaezi, some of Iran's domestic social media networks already have more than two million members. When their membership surpasses three million, the companies will be allowed to advertise in Iran, and after reaching five million members, they could apply for state funds for further development, he said.

However, previous attempts to replace popular foreign apps have proven unsuccessful.

"In the past four years we have shut down many social media networks, but people quickly migrated to other networks," admitted Vaezi at the meeting. "When we blocked the Chinese network WeChat, 24 hours later 3.5 million people moved over to WhatsApp, which is an American network. In effect, we went from the frying pan into the fire."

Vaezi had stated a month earlier that his ministry had filtered "seven million" websites during Rouhani's first term (2013-17).

"In the past three years, we have blocked seven million [web] addresses reported to us from authoritative agencies and blocked 121,000 important software and filter breakers," he said during an open session of Parliament on June 6, 2017.

Filtering in Iran refers to the selective blocking of content within a website, as opposed to the complete blocking or shutting down of an entire website.

The minister also claimed that websites and online services categorized as problematic by the state were reduced from eight percent to 1.5 percent by automated "smart filtering" methods.

With some 40 million Iranians using Telegram alone, social media networks in Iran have effectively ended state media's monopoly on information.

On April 20, 2017, three days after Telegram's Voice Calls service was deemed a threat to national security and blocked by the conservative judiciary, a senior commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) revealed Rouhani had opposed the ban.

"In a meeting with Rouhani, we emphasized that allowing Telegram to initiate a voice calling service in Iran would prevent us from having any kind of control. But the president replied, 'Why are you opposed to any kind of technology imported from the West? Telegram is a symbol of technology and modernism. We should import it to our country,'" said General Hassan Nejat, the head of the IRGC's Intelligence Organization.

In mid-March 2017, in the run-up to Iran's presidential election on May 19 wherein Rouhani successfully sought re-election, the IRGC arrested six administrators of pro-Rouhani reformist channels on Telegram.

Nima Keshvari, Ali Ahmadnia, Mojtaba Bagheri, Sobhan Jafari-Tash, Javad Jamshidi, and Saeed Naghdi, who have been denied access to legal counsel since their arrest, will be tried on August 13, 14 and 15, 2017 at Branch 15 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court presided by Judge Abolqasem Salavati for their peaceful online activities.

... Payvand News - 07/23/17 ... --

Detained Pro-Rouhani Telegram Channel Admins Repeatedly Denied Legal Counsel Three Months After Arrests

CHRI - More than one hundred days after a group of social media supporters of President Hassan Rouhani were arrested by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the detainees are still being denied access to legal counsel, according to one of their lawyers.  "I went to Evin Prison with a letter in my hand from the judge to sign a contract to represent my client Nima Keshvari," Mohammad Taher Kanani told the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) on July 2, 2017. "But I was not allowed to see my client and was told that I had to first become my client's lawyer and then be able to see him."


Mohammad Taher Kanani
The lawyer representing telegram channel admin Nima Keshvari

"But how can I become his lawyer without seeing him and signing a contract?" he added. "This is a violation of attorney-client privileges."

Kanani was eventually allowed to read the contract over the phone to Keshvari, who signed it, but the IRGC agents in Evin Prison refused Kanani's request for a face-to-face meeting with his client.

Ahead of the May 19 presidential election, Keshvari, Ali Ahmadnia, Mojtaba Bagheri, Sobhan Jafari-Tash, Javad Jamshidi, and Saeed Naghdi-all administrators of reformist news channels on the popular Telegram messaging network-were arrested between March 14 and 16.

Despite being denied legal assistance, some of the six have been charged and will soon face trial, according to the head of the Tehran Province prosecutor's office, Alireza Esmaili, who made the comment to ILNA on July 5 without providing details.

Based on Article 48 of Iran's Criminal Code of Procedure: "In the preliminary investigation stage of cases involving crimes against internal and external security, as well as organized crimes... both sides of the dispute can choose a lawyer or lawyers from a list approved by the judiciary chief."

Pressured by concerned family and friends, on June 30 Keshvari ended an 11-day hunger strike to protest his prolonged detention while being denied access to a lawyer.

A few days earlier, Ali Mojtahedzadeh, an attorney representing two other detained Telegram admins, Javad Jamshidi and Sobhan Jafari-Tash, contradicted Judiciary Spokesman Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei's claim that the hunger strikes were merely a "rumor."

"The esteemed deputy judiciary chief gave an interview yesterday and denied that the hunger strikes ever took place," Mojtahedzadeh told ILNA on June 27. "Yet one of the detainees, Mr. Naghdi, has just broken his hunger strike and we don't know how the others are doing."

"The families of the detainees have asked me to help, but I have not been able to meet them," he added. "The judiciary should explain why."

Mojtahedzadeh previously told ILNA on June 21 that the arrests were the result of "political differences" between an unspecified party and the Rouhani government.

Attorney Mostafa Tork Hamadani said on June 21 that he had been denied a meeting with the detainees in Evin Prison.

"This is against the law. I will follow up this matter," he said.

cartoon by Amin Montazeri, Ghanoon daily

Heydar Valizadeh, another reformist channel admin on Telegram who is free on bail, criticized the government of President Hassan Rouhani for not doing enough to end his colleagues' continuing detention.

"Unfortunately the government has not taken any serious steps other than serving us slogans despite the fact that all of them were staunch supporters of (Rouhani's) government and spent years defending him in every capacity," said a June 20 post on Valizadeh's Telegram channel, which has since been deactivated.

In mid-March 2017, two months before Iranians voted in the presidential election, IRGC agents arrested a group of admins of 12 reformist-aligned Telegram channels, deleted the channels' content and changed the names.

A month later, the judiciary accused Rouhani's Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi of colluding with the detained admins.

"Regarding this particular case, there are matters that relate to the intelligence minister himself," said Ejei on April 12 while commenting on the case.

A photo had previously been shared on social media showing the minister posing with some of the detained admins.

Administrators of popular social media and online sites in Iran customarily meet with government officials as both sides try to win support and access.

"I don't know of any crime the admins may have committed for which I share responsibility," said Alavi in response to Ejei. "It looks like they may have been arrested because of me."

On June 6, the families of five of the detainees went to Parliament and asked for an investigation into their loved ones' cases.

Article 90 of the Constitution authorizes the legislature to investigate complaints from the public against all state branches and report their findings to the public.

"These arrests could be interpreted as the IRGC's interference in the presidential election as a military institution, which is barred by the Constitution," wrote reformist MP Mahmoud Sadeghi in an open letter to IRGC commander General Mohammad Ali Jafari on March 18, 2017.

On March 17, four reformist members of Parliament had demanded an explanation for the arrests from Rouhani.

"Foremost we expect your excellency to resolve this problem, but if no action is taken, we will invite the four ministers involved, namely the ministers of intelligence, justice, interior and Islamic guidance... to Parliament and pursue this matter until the truth becomes clear and the rights of the detainees are restored, even by impeaching the relevant ministers if need be," said the letter signed by MPs Elias Hazrati, Abdolkarim Hosseinzadeh, Bahram Parsaie and Mohammad Ali Vakili.

Alavi answered the MPs' questions in a closed parliamentary session on June 6. No details have been made public.

Rouhani, who called for an investigation into the arrests in late March, has followed up by criticizing the judiciary for making arbitrary arrests.

"We must have a reason if we summon someone," he said at a national conference of judicial officials in Tehran on July 2. "We can't summon someone and then find a reason. We need sufficient reason first. This is what our Constitution demands."

"One of the president's duties is to carry out the Constitution and helping the judiciary is part of that," he added. "The president should be concerned with the judicial branch as much as the government and take action if he sees problems in the implementation of the law."

... Payvand News - 07/06/17 ... --

Supporters Of Iran's President Rohani Launch Huge Twitter Storm Backing Him After Hardline Mob Forces Him to Flee Rall

 

CHRI - Tens of thousands of President Hassan Rouhani's supporters took to social media to express their outrage after he was surrounded by an angry mob loyal to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and forced to flee a rally in Tehran on June 23.  In a short time, their # I-Support-Rouhani (�#حامی_روحانى_ام�) Twitter storm in Farsi exploded to the top of the network's highest trending topics worldwide.


Map shows extent of I-Support-Rouhani tweets in Iran by region.

An investigation by the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) shows that the Twitter storm, which began at 10pm Tehran time on June 23 and peaked two hours later, generated more than 150,000 tweets in a matters of hours, with 70 percent originating from inside Iran where the network is officially banned.

Figures show most tweets were sent from the following provinces, in this order: Hamadan, Alborz, Semnan, Qazvin, East Azerbaijan, Isfahan, Tehran, Hormozgan, Khorasan Razavi, Khuzestan, Gilan, West Azerbaijan, Mazandaran, Yazd and Zanjan.

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IranHumanRights.org

✔@ICHRI

Watch how Iranians turned #حامی_روحانی_ام (I Support Rouhani) into the 1st worldwide trend today. Ironically twitter is blocked in Iran.

11:01 PM - 23 Jun 2017

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During the annual Quds Day rally in the capital, an angry mob shouted slogans against Rouhani, comparing him to Iran's first president, Abolhassan Banisadr, who was ousted in a power struggle in 1981 and fled to France.

The outpouring of support for Rouhani has taken place on social media where Iranians can express themselves relatively freely, in contrast to the highly censored state-controlled traditional media outlets that shy away from reporting that is critical of Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who has recently made remarks widely seen as highly critical of the Rouhani administration's policies.

In addition to I-Support-Rouhani, other hashtags in Farsi, such as Rouhani-is-not-Alone and He-Was-the-Peoples-Choice, also generated large trends, often with emojis that symbolized love and victory.

"I Support Rohani" campaign
artwork by Hadi Heidari

Deputy Parliament Speaker and Rouhani ally Ali Motahhari, who also became a target of the pro-Khamenei mob on June 23, called on the Judiciary to apprehend those involved.

"The group that shouted slogans against the president during the Quds Day rally in a premeditated attack committed obvious crimes. The evidence is there and now we have to see how the Judiciary will react," he said in an Instagram post. "The Tehran Prosecutor is facing a great test either to pursue the criminals in a show of judicial impartiality or close its eyes and ignore justice in favor of political partisanship."

The mob attacking President Rohani
cartoon by Mehdi Azizi, Ghanoon daily
Read relates articles (in Persian) by Iranian dailies:
Ghanoon | Shahrvand | Shargh

The angry chanting mob that surrounded Rouhani at the rally on June 23 took place days after Khamenei made a reference to Banisadr's downfall and warned the Rouhani government not to fall in the same "dangerous" path.

"The country should not be polarized," Iran's leader said in a speech to government officials on June 12, 2017.  "People should not be divided into supporters and opponents, as they were in 1980 by the president at that time. It's dangerous."

On June 7, Khamenei said his supporters should "fire at will" against a government that does not do its job effectively, a remark that many Rouhani supporters saw as implicitly inviting such actions against the centrist president.

cartoon by Abolfazl Rahimi, Ghanoon daily

... Payvand News - 06/25/17 ... --

Denied Due Process, Detained Telegram Channel Admins Go on Hunger Strike

Telegram channel admin Nima Keshvari was detained in mid-March 2017 by the IRGC's Intelligence Organization.CHRI - Six administrators of channels on the Telegram messaging application who were arrested in the run-up to Iran's May 2017 presidential election have gone on hunger strike in Evin Prison to protest their prolonged detention without access to legal counsel.

Rouhani Government “Closed Seven Million” Websites in First Term

CHRI - A cabinet minister appointed by centrist President Hassan Rouhani has admitted that the Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technology filtered "seven million" websites during Rouhani's first term (2013-17).

Iran targets Telegram app as it seeks to control news ahead of May election


 

Iran targets Telegram app as it seeks to control news ahead of May electionCPJ - Iran has a history of cracking down on the independent press ahead of elections, with authorities arresting journalists and forcing reformist outlets to shut down. As Iranians prepare to vote in presidential and city council elections on May 19, authorities have turned their attention to Telegram, arresting several channel administrators for the app.


With mainstream social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter blocked for most users in the country, Telegram has become a popular way for Iranians to share news. A tech expert and a journalist with whom CPJ spoke said that Telegram played a critical role in the 2016 parliamentary Iranian election--in which dozens of moderate and reformist leaning candidates were elected to the Majles (Iran's parliament)--by allowing users to circumvent censorship. A video of former president Mohammad Khatami, for instance, in which he encouraged people to vote for reformist candidates, was widely shared on Telegram. Iranian media are banned from showing Khatami and YouTube is blocked, leaving Telegram as one of the few ways for supporters to share Khatami's message inside Iran.

A Telegram channel administrator, who goes by the name Vahid Online, told CPJ, "Telegram was the deciding factor in Iran's last election and I believe it will play a very important role in the upcoming presidential election."

The app is popular in Iran, where it has 40 million active users, according to Telegram chief executive Pavel Durov. Digital safety experts however, have criticized Telegram for security vulnerabilities such as its use of a proprietary encryption protocol whose safety cryptographers are unable to assess--unlike standard protocols, which are well-tested. It is also possible to use unencrypted chats by accident and Telegram' phone-number-based authentication system makes it easy for governments to take over accounts and access previous messages, experts have warned. Telegram told CPJ last year it rejects claims that its system is vulnerable. [CPJ recommends using Signal or WhatsApp for secure, encrypted messaging.]

Iranian authorities have also tried to regulate Telegram. In December, the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, a body that set policies on internet content, announced that Telegram channels with more than 5,000 followers must register with the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. According to the semi-official Mehr News, more than 2,000 channels are registered.

Amir Rashidi, an internet security researcher at the Center for Human Rights in Iran, told CPJ the group's research suggests the administrators were arrested because Iranian authorities had access to their identities through the registry and because they had a close connection to Hassan Rouhani's administration. A report by the New York-based human rights advocacy organization said that the registration scheme was probably implemented to help identify reformist voices.

Local news outlets reported that channels affected by the arrests include Reform News, with more than 111,000 followers, and Assembly of Reformists, with 94,000 followers, and that content on some channels was deleted after the arrests. CPJ was unable to determine if authorities ordered the channels to delete the content. Authorities have not publicly given a reason for the arrests, but Ali Motahari, a member of parliament, told the semi-official ISNA news agency, "about 12 administrators of reformist or pro-government Telegram channels have been arrested by an intelligence body." CPJ was unable to determine the status of their cases.

CPJ's review in recent months of the channels targeted found they mostly contained news, information, and analysis about Iran's presidential election, and often were supportive of reformists.

Rashidi told CPJ, "Telegram had a huge impact in Iran's last parliamentary election. Reformist activists had very limited access to major media outlets and the state radio and TV, so they used Telegram to send and spread their messages." Rashidi said that he thinks Telegram helped mobilize millions of people who voted for candidates featured on what was known as the List of Hope. "By using tools provided by the app (such as groups, bots and channels) Iranian voters were able to find names of the candidates based on the city they lived," said Rashidi.

Rashidi added that he believes the arrest of Telegram administrators is an attempt by authorities to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

Telegram has not publicly commented on the arrests of channel moderators, but the company has been critical of moves by Iran to block users from making calls through Telegram, saying in an April 17 statement that Iran's action "suggests that this move is targeting Telegram specifically."

Iranian authorities have also targeted journalists ahead of the elections. CPJ has documented in recent weeks how Iranian authorities arrested journalists Ehsan Mazandarani, Hengameh Shahidi and Morad Saghafi, and sentenced Issa Saharkhiz to one year in prison one day after he was released from jail on a separate charge. The country also blocks access to millions of websites, including news and social networking sites.

Telegram has helped Iranians to expose some of the censorship. Last month, an apparent attempt by the state-run News 1 channel to censor a live news broadcast was widely circulated on Telegram. A clip shows a news anchor about to announce that Hamid Baghaei, an ally of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is running for the presidency. Before the anchor says Baghaei's name, the camera cuts to the news room, where a second anchor says the station is experiencing technical difficulties. When the news feed returns to the first anchor, she can be heard asking the control room, "You don't want me to mention Baghaei's name?" before realizing she is live on air and finishing her report without mentioning the candidate.

Baghaei and Ahmadinejad were both found "unqualified" to run by Iran' conservative Guardian Council, which must approve all candidates that run for presidency.

The arrest of Telegram administrators has been criticized by Rouhani. The president, who has been vocal about his efforts to keep Telegram open, said last month that Iran's Minister of Intelligence informed him that those arrested "had not committed any crime," ISNA reported. Mahmoud Sadeghi, an Iranian MP, also tweeted that he is investigating the arrests. Sadeghi posted a message by a constituent who said her husband was arrested by six agents and is accused of "acting against national security." The message, which did not identify the woman or her husband, said that agents showed them a form with a Revolutionary Guard's logo on it.

Five reformist-leaning Iranian MPs also sent an open letter to the Minister of Intelligence about the arrests.

Three Young Men to Serve 12 Years in Prison For “Insulting” Social Media Posts

Three Young Men to Serve 12 Years in Prison For “Insulting” Social Media PostsCHRI - Three 24-year-olds have been sentenced to 12 years in prison each in Iran for posting critical commentary about politics and religion on the popular Telegram messaging network.

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