It’s not surprising that an authoritarian society prefers to spin, threaten and manipulate individual journalists than to allow their people to communicate with the world outside its borders. For one thing, it’s a lot more efficient: a New York Times reporter with good relations with the regime, for example, can be a more effective megaphone for regime propaganda in foreign capitals than, say, a few hundred blurry videos of protesting crowds in Qom or Isfahan. Sure, incentives like personal safety, ideology and prestige contribute to playing ball with the regime and assuring the world’s media that everything in Iran is doing just fine, thank you. Of course, knowing that your employer does a lucrative trade in tours of Iran certainly has to help as well.
Iran’s success at controlling foreign-based journalism begins with fear under color of law. In August, an Iranian court froze the assets of more than 150 Iranian current and former BBC Persia staffers and contributors. The order was initially issued by authorities based in Iran’s feared Evin Prison, which often houses political dissenters. No explanation was given; nevertheless, the message to journalists was clear.
Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières, RSF) claims that this behavior by the Iranian regime targets all foreign press. In addition, “the Iranian intelligence services pressure Iranian journalists who are working abroad[.]” These two methods are designed to terrorize individual reporters and journalists. In the case of BBC Persia, some of the reporters were penalized even though they no longer worked for the outlet. This raises the cost of making reports critical of the regime even in moments of relative calm, as reporters are sent the message that the courts may come after them the next time there is unrest. A 2017 UN Report by the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran chronicled repeated cases of the government blocking popular social media applications and cracking down on journalists.
Some of their victims include Ehsan Mazandarani, the Managing editor of the reformist newspaper Farhikhtegan, who was arrested on November 2, 2015 by intelligence agents of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and taken to Evin Prison. In April 2016, Mazandarani was sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security” and “spreading propaganda against the regime.” He was released in February 2017, but then re-arrested a month later, and finally released again on October 31, 2017. He suffered a heart attack while in prison, as well as lung, kidney, and intestinal problems.
In March of 2017, IRGC security forces arrested Morad Saghafi, the editor of Goftegoo Magazine, which focuses on culture and social sciences. In a speech at a seminar on local affairs, Mr. Saghafi criticized the “unchecked powers” of Iranian officials and accused local authorities of running Tehran in a “corrupt and dictatorial” manner. Revolutionary Guards also arrested seven administrators of 12 reformist-aligned channels on the popular Telegram messaging application. A month later, in April of 2017, Iranian Prosecutor-General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri blocked Instagram because the regime’s intelligence agencies couldn’t monitor it. General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri explained that the social media application Instagram Live, used by Iranians to circulate information in real time about the candidates and their campaigns, had been blocked because the intelligence agencies could not monitor it. In June, six of the jailed administrators started a hunger strike in Evin Prison to protest their prolonged detention without access to legal counsel.
Even though the Islamic Republic of Iran can use the full force and intimidation of the government to censor journalists, threaten reporters and block popular social media applications, it cannot prevent the explosive growth of social media or the people’s access to smartphones. As Karim Sadjadpour of The Atlantic notes, “in 2009—when an estimated 2 million to 3 million Iranians protested silently in Tehran—fewer than 1 million Iranians owned such a device, and few outside Tehran. Today, an astonishing 48 million Iranians are thought to have smartphones, all of them equipped with social media and communication apps.”
It is important to note that the social media landscape today is vastly different than it was in 2009, the year of Iran’s failed Green Revolution, in terms of numbers alone. For instance, in 2009 Facebook averaged around 350 million active monthly users. Today, Facebook has over 2 billion active monthly users. Though precise metrics are publicly unavailable, Twitter had 18 million users worldwide in 2009—the year of Iran’s failed Green Revolution. Today, there are nearly 350 million as of the end of this past year.
In addition, young Iranians have been taking advantage of other social media and communications platforms like WhatsApp and Instagram, leading the closed, clerical regime to redouble its efforts to control the story that is being told. Over the last few days, authorities in Iran have now blocked Instagram and the messaging app Telegram. The CEO of Telegram said Sunday that Iran is “blocking access … for the majority of Iranians” after protesters used the popular messaging platform to plan and publicize demonstrations.
Though the attention of much of the world is now focused on the brutality of the regime and its crackdown on free expression, the throttling of social media isn’t a new experience for Iranians. In June, Iran’s Minister of Communications and Information Technology Mahmoud Vaezi acknowledged that his ministry had filtered seven million websites during much-hyped “moderate” Hassan Rouhani’s first term as the country’s president.
Unlike Barack Obama, who refrained from actively supporting the Green Revolution in 2009, Donald Trump appears to pursue a different approach. As the president noted in his Iran strategy speech in October:
Iran is under the control of a fanatical regime that seized power in 1979 and forced a proud people to submit to its extremist rule. This radical regime has raided the wealth of one of the world’s oldest and most vibrant nations, and spread death, destruction, and chaos all around the globe…In this effort, we stand in total solidarity with the Iranian regime’s longest-suffering victims: its own people. The citizens of Iran have paid a heavy price for the violence and extremism of their leaders. The Iranian people long to — and they just are longing, to reclaim their country’s proud history, its culture, its civilization, its cooperation with its neighbors.
It’s a noble goal, and, as is the case in any democracy, it cannot be achieved without a robust and unfettered press.
Nick Short is a political analyst & consultant specializing in social media management and intelligence. He is currently the Director of Digital Media at the Security Studies Group. Follow him on Twitter @PoliticalShort.