Protests in Iran fanned by exiled journalist, messaging app

The Telegram app closed a channel run by Roohallah Zam after Iranian authorities complained that it was inciting violence, just hours before the government shut down the app entirely on Sunday. (AP)
Updated 31 December 2017

Protests in Iran fanned by exiled journalist, messaging app

DUBAI: As protests over Iran’s faltering economy rapidly spread across the country, a channel on a mobile messaging app run by an exiled journalist helped fan the passions of some of those who took to the street.
The Telegram app closed a channel run by Roohallah Zam after Iranian authorities complained that it was inciting violence, just hours before the government shut down the app entirely on Sunday. Zam, who denies the allegations, meanwhile launched new channels to spread messages about upcoming protests and share videos from demonstrations.
What happens next could influence the future course of the largest protests Iran has seen since 2009.
It’s hard to overstate the power of Telegram in Iran. Of its 80 million people, an estimated 40 million use the free app created by Russian national Pavel Durov. Its clients share videos and photos, subscribing to groups where everyone from politicians to poets broadcast to fellow users.
While authorities ban social media websites like Facebook and Twitter and censor others, Telegram users can say nearly anything. In the last presidential election, the app played a big role in motivating turnout and spreading political screeds.
Telegram touts itself as being highly encrypted and allows users to set their messages to “self-destruct” after a certain period, making it a favorite among activists and others concerned about their privacy. That too has made it a worry of Iranian authorities.
Zam has used the app to share news and information published by his AmadNews website. Posts included times and locations for protests, as well as videos of demonstrators shouting inflammatory chants, including those targeting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani.
Officials have meanwhile targeted Telegram in recent remarks, with prosecutors going as far as filing criminal charges against Durov.
On Saturday, Iran’s Telecommunications Minister Mohammed Javad Azari Jahromi wrote to Durov on Twitter, complaining AmadNews was “encouraging hateful conduct, use (of) Molotov cocktails, armed uprising and social unrest.”
Durov responded by saying Telegram suspended the account.
“A Telegram channel (Amadnews) started to instruct their subscribers to use Molotov cocktails against police and got suspended due to our ‘no calls for violence’ rule. Be careful — there are lines one shouldn’t cross.” Durov tweeted.
Zam, who has said he fled Iran after being falsely accused of working with foreign intelligence services, denied inciting violence on Telegram.
Telegram’s decision drew criticism from free Internet advocates and Iranians. Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who exposed US government surveillance programs in 2013, said Telegram should instead be working on how to make the service accessible after a potential government ban.
“Telegram will face increasing pressure over time to collaborate with the Iranian government’s demands for this or that,” Snowden wrote on Twitter.
He added: “You can’t keep an independent, destabilizing service from being blocked in authoritarian regimes, you can only delay it.”
Those words proved prophetic Sunday, as Durov himself wrote on Twitter that Iran blocked the app “for the majority of Iranians after our public refusal to shut down ... peacefully protesting channels.” Iranian state television later quoted an anonymous official as saying the app would be temporarily limited as a safety measure.
It also marks a setback for Zam, the son of cleric Mohammad Ali Zam, who once served in a government policy position in the early 1980s. The cleric wrote a letter published by Iranian media in July in which he said he wouldn’t support his son over AmadNews’ reporting and messages on its Telegram channel.
“I found that you crossed the red line,” the cleric wrote, referring to comments the channel circulated about Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“Our red line is the supreme leader, but you passed the red line.”
Zam did not respond to a request for comment on Sunday from The Associated Press, though he published a video late on Saturday on the channel being blocked.
“Unfortunately the Amadnews was blocked,” Zam said in a message to his followers. A new channel “will continue its work as hard as before and with the help of God, we will become millions again.”
At least 1.7 million people have viewed the first message on the new channel, according to Telegram. It called for protests on Sunday at sites across Iran before the government ordered the app shut down.


Accusations of serial assault spark new #MeToo wave in Egypt

Updated 13 July 2020

Accusations of serial assault spark new #MeToo wave in Egypt

  • Activists say the case shows that misogyny cuts across the country’s stark class lines
  • In Egypt, sexual assault complaints have typically involved street harassment

CAIRO: Their accounts are similar. The girls and women describe meeting the young man — a former student at Egypt’s most elite university — in person and online, followed by deceit, then escalating sexual harassment, assault, blackmail or rape.
Some were minors when the alleged crimes took place. In all, more than 100 accusers have emerged online in the past two weeks.
It’s resulted in a new #MeToo firestorm on social media, and the arrest of the suspect last week from his home in a gated community outside Cairo.
Activists say the case shows that misogyny cuts across the country’s stark class lines; many in Egypt have previously portrayed harassment as a problem of poor urban youth.
Women’s rights champions hope the authorities’ swift response signals change in how Egyptian society handles accusations of sexual assault.
“What’s before this case is totally different from what’s after,” said Nihad Abuel-Komsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights and a lawyer representing some of the alleged victims.
Sexual assault and harassment are deep-seated problems in Egypt, where victims must also fight the undercurrent of a conservative culture that typically ties female chastity to a family’s reputation. In courts, the burden of proof lies heavily on the victim of such crimes.
In a statement, the public prosecutor’s officer said the accused man acknowledged he blackmailed at least six girls, saying he would send sensitive photos of them to their families if they cut ties. Several attempts by The Associated Press to contact him or his lawyer were unsuccessful.
Amr Adib, Egypt’s most prominent TV host, said in a recent episode that he’d spoken with the young man’s father, who occupies a high-ranking position at a telecommunication company. He said his son dismissed the allegations.
At least 10 women have officially reported their claims, according to Abuel-Komsan, of the women’s rights center. Activists also set up the Instagram account @assaultpolice to collect allegations, said Sabah Khodir, a US-based writer who helps run the account. She said there are more than 100 accounts.
“We are demanding to be listened to … We are just using what we have, lending our voices to hopefully create some kind of change,” she said.
A court has ordered the accused to remain in custody pending an investigation into an array of accusations that include attempted rape, blackmail and indecent assault, according to a five-page statement by the public prosecutor. In the same statement, the prosecutor urged more alleged victims to come forward.
Last week, the government of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi moved to amend the country’s criminal law to increase protections for the identities of sexual assault victims, which activists have welcomed. The amendment still needs parliamentary approval and El-Sisi’s signature to be made law.
The allegations against the student cover a period of at least three years.
Many of the anonymous accounts appear to be from fellow students at the American International School, one of the country’s most expensive private high schools, and the American University in Cairo, which school officials said the accused left in 2018. It would appear that he then enrolled at the European Union Business School in Spain, in an online program last year.
In February, he spent three weeks at its Barcelona campus, but the school expelled him after an accusation of online harassment that was subsequently proved false, said Claire Basterfield, a spokesperson for the EUBS. The school has filed a 54-page criminal complaint with the Spanish police, seeking further investigation into his actions.
The head of the American University in Cairo, Francis Ricciardone, said the university has a zero-tolerance policy concerning sexual harassment, but that he would not comment on an ongoing case.
According to accusations posted on social media in the past two weeks, the former student would mine the pool of mutual friends on Facebook, online groups or school clubs. He would start with flattery, then pressure the women and girls to share intimate photos that he later used to blackmail them to have sex with him. If they did not, he would threaten to send the pictures to their family.
In some cases, he “attracted their sympathy by claiming he was going through a crisis,” then lured them to his home in an upscale compound where he sexually assaulted them, the prosecutor’s statement alleged.
In Egypt, sexual assault complaints have typically involved street harassment. During and after the 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, women were frequently harassed, groped — and in some cases, beaten and sexually assaulted — during mass protests.
This time, there are signs of wider ripples throughout the society. The current series of complaints has prompted Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world’s foremost religious institution, to speak out on sexual harassment and assault, even challenging the widely held belief that a woman is at fault if her clothing is less than modest. It’s a departure from the norm for the conservative Muslim majority country where most women wear headscarves.
There are also other corners where accusations of sexual harassment are emerging, such as in civil society groups and businesses.
Two rights groups said they fired one employee and suspended another, and opened investigations after allegations of sexual misconduct against them were made public. Authorities also detained a prominent publisher over the weekend after a poet filed a complaint with the Cairo police, accusing him of sexually harassing her, the state-run Al-Ahram reported. The publisher denied the allegations in a Facebook posting. He was released late Sunday on 5,000 Egyptian pounds ($313) in bail, pending an investigation.
The recent cases — reaching into the Egyptian elite — have “refuted all previous arguments and justifications for harassment, from poverty to illiteracy and things like that,” Abuel-Komsan said.