Whatsapp in Iran?

Whatsapp in Iran? - Digital

This week we were witness to a number of interesting developments in Iran. On the 3rd May we saw tweets from the Ayatollah Khamenei regarding press freedom, which made one wonder whether it is in fact he who is tweeting:

A #PressFreedom that respects national interest&ppl’s religious beliefs is an inalienable right of press&a main part of #Iran’s Constitution

Or more elaborately:

I consider 3 main duties for press:1.criticism& supervision, 2.transparent information, 3. Exchanging ideas in society. #PressFreedom #Iran

If that wasn’t enough to make your head spin, he also mentioned the essentiality of books (which in Iran’s case, only applies to the limited number of books not prohibited under the Press Law):

Every night at my own home all family members read before going to bed.So do I and I #hope all #Iran-ian families will be like that. #Books

Unfortunately, as seen in the responses to these tweets, these empty declarations are hardly taken seriously when coming from the Ayatollah whose brutal attacks on the press freedoms allow for the continued crackdown on journalists expressing views deemed contrary to “public morality and chastity” (Articles 14 and 15 of the Computer Crimes Law 2013) . His virulent criticism of media outlets with international links has fuelled the rage of government bodies carrying out the repression against legitimate forms of expression in Iran.

Continuing on from the above tweets is Rouhani’s recent tweet:

As I have told @camanpour, my efforts are geared to ensure my ppl will comfortably be able to access all info globally, as is their #right

Rohani and Khamenei’s tweets all came on the day when news spread regarding the ban of Whatsapp in Iran. This decision was apparently made due to Whatsapp’s recent purchase by Mark Zuckerberg. The ban was announced by the secretary of the Committee for Determining Criminal Web Content, Abdolsamad Khorramabadi, who was quoted as saying “the reason for this is the adoption of WhatsApp by the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who is an American Zionist.” Soon after, Rouhani and Iran’s Communication Minister, Mahmoud Vaezi, made statements denouncing the ban, maintaining that the Government of Iran is “fully opposed to filtering of Whatsapp”.

Rouhani has shown a more resilient side by going head-to-head with hardliners and vetoing this proposed ban. It seems that the Whatsapp fiasco has triggered an open dispute and rupture between Rouhani’s administration and the 13-member committee responsible for Internet censorship.

The Rouhani administration has been attempting to implement moderate social policies and a friendly approach to foreign relations through recent “useful” talks on Tehran’s nuclear program. It is therefore not surprising that a statement from the Communication Minister condemning this ban was made. Rouhani has been increasingly under attack from broad array of political hardliners and right-wing opponents for the concessions made by Rouhani’s administration as part of this interim nuclear deal with world powers, which have won Iran limited sanction relief. He is going against many, but it is indeed needed in order to honour his campaign promise of “upholding the rights of all Iranian citizens.”

Given the daily updates on Twitter by the Heads of Iran (as seen in the examples above) it is hypocritical that access to social networks, including Twitter and Facebook, are routinely blocked by Iranian authorities, as are other websites considered un-Islamic or detrimental to the regime. Twitter and Facebook have been banned in Iran since 2009, when ex-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election victory sparked off large violent protests that gained momentum partly with the use of social media.

In recent months Rouhani has been making increasingly bold proclamations in the view of promoting freedom of expression in Iran, to some extent, and this veto on the Whatsapp ban is one of the few signs that he is actually willing to take a stance on the matter. His maintained policy of not publicly addressing human rights issues has been highly criticised, even by his supporters. Thus, perhaps this is his signal that he will be making strides for improvement soon. An interesting report from Iran Wire expands on this, demonstrating the need for Rouhani to break this silence on the opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s heath condition whilst under extra-judicial house arrest. The article highlights Rouhani’s debt to Mousavi supporters and thus Mousavi himself. As always with Iran, we are in the waiting game, waiting to see if Rouhani delivers.

An Underlying Problem

The Press Freedom Index recently exposed that Iran falls at the 173rd position (of 180), highlighting the lack of implementation of Rouhani’s election promises (you can monitor these changes on the Rouhani Meter). The UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ahmed Shaheed’s, recent post highlights that increasingly “material deemed offensive or subversive is legally restricted, and where media entities and journalists, bloggers, and other netizens are often prosecuted for publishing or managing online content viewed as “propagating against” the Government.” More worryingly, the issue that there are currently 37 journalists and netizens detained in Iran, including 16 who were detained due to the activities of a tech-gadget news website, has not been addressed.

He furthers that in violation of Iran’s obligation to guarantee freedom of expression, a wide range of websites are blocked, including sites related to health, science, sports, news, and even shopping, each year.  A recent study showed that Iran intentionally reduces internet speed to “frustrate users and limit communication”. For instance the Internet traffic and speeds dropped significantly “in the days following the 2009 Iranian presidential election and in the weeks leading up to the 2013 election. Throttling has also been noticeable during times of international political upheaval, including during the Arab Spring.”

Rouhani is well aware that press freedom and access to information, including access to social networking sites, are important gestures for his administration to make in order to improve Iran’s international image. The underlying problem is that speech and information suppression has been used as a vital political weapon by the Iranian government. This deep seeded tactic will be difficult to counter even for a reformist such as Rouhani. That being said, one can agree that his veto to block the ban on Whatsapp was an improvement on his normal disassociation with such topics; however, we are far from seeing the needed discourse on legal reforms in government, let alone actual reform on Iran’s suppressive press and cyber laws.

We should also note that regardless of the veto, the issue was left open when Mahmoud Vaezi was quoted as saying “(u)ntil the time that we have a replacement for these sites, the government opposes filtering them”. We will be monitoring developments closely to see whether more substantial reforms are made to allow for legitimate freedom of expression in Iran. Whether Rouhani will continue to go head-to-head with his internal opponents will be interesting to see.