Iran: Arrest of Instagram celebrities part of efforts towards filtering the platform

ARTICLE 19 condemns the May 2018 arrests of high profile Iranian Instagram users Maedeh Hojabri, Elnar Ghasemi, Shadab Shakib, and Kami Yousefi, ahead of new attempts to filter the platform in the country. Earlier this year, the Iranian authorities temporarily blocked online platforms Telegram and Instagram during widespread protests across the country, while a number of other platforms remain permanently blocked. The latest threats towards Instagram, used widely in Iran, represent yet another attack on online freedoms in the country, and the harassment and arrests of those using the platform to justify restrictions must end.

The judiciary has been threatening to filter Instagram within Iran since the beginning of July, pointing in particular to its use to enable the ‘illicit activities’ of so-called instagram celebrities. The arrest of these high profile Instagram users, in what appears to be the beginning of a wider crackdown on the platform, has sparked a worldwide outcry after the government forced 18 year old Hojabri into confessing to the “crime” of posting videos of herself dancing.

Followers of Hojabri had noticed she had become inactive on social media since May – but it was only when, on 9 July, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) aired a disturbing forced confession video of several of the Instagram users that it become clear she was in detention. The confessions appeared to have occurred soon after the detentions of those aired, as one of the female detainees being interviewed was asked if her family new she was arrested, with the response, “they realized when they came to our house to arrest me this morning.” Another male detainee, identified as Kami Yousefi, in the video indicates it’s the month of June throughout his confessions, signally a correlation behind the broadcasts timing with the statements of the judiciary.

On 3 July 2018, the deputy Prosecutor General of the country, Hajatoleslam Mohamad Mosadegh, speaking to semi-official Fars News, indicated that there had been “activities under the title of celebrities in cyberspace and the collection of money on the pretext of helping the poor that has led to much fraud.” The deputy prosecutor indicated that because of these concerns, the Prosecutors office has to “cut off the hands of these people [from Instagram] and bring confidence back to society.”

No charges have been announced, however on the same day as the broadcast, the head of Tehran’s cyber-police (known as FATA), Touraj Kazemi told the Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA), that the administrators of a number of criminal Instagram pages have been detained, largely in Tehran, and the ‘appropriate measures’ are being taken. Kazemi identified these arrests to be associated with various “celebrities of Instagram pages” and psychologist Dr Hagh Ranjbar, interviewed by IRIB in their 9 July broadcast, referred to the issue as “the societal ills of the celebrities of Instagram pages who try to promote themselves.”

According to Article 638 of Iran’s Islamic Penal Code, dancing, considered a “sinful act” which is punishable with two months imprisonment and 74 lashes. Similar charges were brought in May 2014 against several Iranians who made and shared a fan-video for the Pharrell song “Happy” on social media.

The forced confessions on IRIB are also part of long-standing concerns regarding violations of due process in the country’s judicial system, and use of the state broadcasting system to promote government narratives on arrested human rights defenders, journalists, academics and social media users. IRIB broadcasts have previously been used to promote conspiracy theories against dual nationals Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe and Seyed Kavous-Emami. The Center for Human Rights in Iran has also documented the role IRIB has played in the violation of prisoners’ human rights. In their 2014 report, they documented evidence for how forced “confessions” are often extracted under the threat of or through torture, and then broadcast by the state-run IRIB to justify politically motivated prosecutions.

This targeting of Instagram and its users is a troubling new turn of events in a series of restrictions that have been taking place for freedom of expression since the winter protests of December 2017 to January 2018”, said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19.

Since December, we have seen concerning decisions to temporarily restrict Iranians access to the Internet, through shutdowns of foreign traffic, the censorship of the widely used Telegram, and the continued arrests of social media users, journalists, activists and human rights defenders. This latest development is an attempt to both oppress Iran’s social media users while making a case to shutdown the popular platform. Iran must stop targeting Instagram for filtering, and must release arrested Instagram users immediately”, he added.


Further information:

Article 638 of the Iranian Islamic Penal Code:

Anyone in public places and roads who openly commits a harām (sinful) act, in addition to the punishment provided for the act, shall be sentenced to two months’ imprisonment or up to 74 lashes; and if they commit an act that is not punishable but violates public prudency, they shall only be sentenced to ten days to two months’ imprisonment or up to 74 lashes.

Note – Women, who appear in public places and roads without wearing an Islamic hijab, shall be sentenced to ten days to two months’ imprisonment or a fine of fifty thousand to five hundred Rials.