Global backlash over Iran’s cyber battle against protesters

Iranian students protest at the University of Tehran on December 30, 2017. (AFP)
Updated 09 January 2018

Global backlash over Iran’s cyber battle against protesters

LONDON: The Iranian government may be rethinking its battle against online dissent after a global backlash against moves to curb the use of social media tools such as Telegram.
It follows fresh comments made by President Hassan Rouhani on Monday stating that he did not want to “permanently” restrict access to social media.
His remarks contradict earlier decisions made in December to block the picture-sharing app Instagram and the encrypted messaging app Telegram due to the belief they were fueling the protests that broke out on the streets of the country last month.
It follows widespread criticism of the move to curb access to social media tools used by the protesters.
Speaking to ministers on Monday, Rouhani said: “People’s access to cyberspace should not be cut permanently; one cannot be indifferent to people’s lives and businesses.
“Every technology can be abused by some; we cannot block the technology and the benefits that people are taking from it,” he added in comments published on the president’s official website.
Iran has had a strong grip over social media for many years, with Facebook and Twitter technically banned since 2009. However, many people have still managed to find a way to access the sites and even Rouhani opened his own Facebook page in 2013.
Holly Dagres, a former US State Department analyst who now runs The Iranist website, said: “The Iranian government tends to slow the Internet in times of big protests like 2009 and this past week’s protests. They also have censored Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. But that hasn’t stopped Iranians from using circumvention tools like VPNs to override the censorship. Iranians are professionals when it comes to circumvention, and though the government attempted to curb social media coverage of the protests, it hasn’t stopped Iranians from sharing information with the world.”
The messaging service Telegram has become one of the most popular social media tools in Iran in recent years, with an estimated 40 million Iranians using the product. Users can message each other via private and public channels.
The decision to block the app was due to Telegram’s refusal to shut down certain channels being used by protesters, according to a statement by the company’s CEO Pavel Durov on Dec. 31. He said at the time that it wasn’t clear whether the block was a permanent or temporary move.
The Iranian minister tweeted Durov late last month, accusing the channel of “encouraging hateful conduct.”
In his official statement, Durov countered such accusations, stating: “We are proud that Telegram is used by thousands of massive opposition channels all over the world. We consider freedom of speech an undeniable human right, and would rather get blocked in a country by its authorities than limit peaceful expression of alternative opinions.”
The messaging app did, however, suspend a public channel called @amadnews which it said had broken rules set out by Telegram which bans people using the app from making calls for violence.
The account had called for subscribers to use “molotov cocktails and firearms against police.”
According to Durov, the administrators for the channel apologized for breaking the rules and a “new peaceful channel” has been reinstated.
It may be too early to say if Rouhani’s comments signal a significant shift in Iran’s stance on social media, with no official confirmation that Telegram has been unblocked. Instagram has reportedly now been unblocked.
Instagram and Telegram did not reply to requests by Arab News for comment.
However some analysts see his remarks as an attempt to distance himself from more hard-line elements in the regime.
“The comments show that ​President Rouhani wants to create​ a clear distance between ​himself and his conservative critic​s, using the protests as a unique opportunity to pivot himself away from being the demonstrators’ target to becoming their champion for reform,” Ali Valez, the Washington-based director of the Iran Project, told Arab News.
There are also signs that pro-government supporters are starting to harness the power of social media in order to promote their own agenda.
One strategy being employed is the creation of Twitter bots which generate automatic content and followers. A BBC report published on Jan. 7 found that these accounts were being used to undermine tweets made by protesters, such as denying that a demonstration had taken place.
There are also continued reports of Iran’s clampdown on anti-government protests. More than 40 Iranian students have been arrested between Dec. 30 and Jan. 4, 2018, according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran.
According to a BBC report on Monday, a 22-year-old man arrested during the protests has died in a prison in Tehran.


Photojournalism key to promoting tolerance in digital age, world summit told

Updated 13 November 2019

Photojournalism key to promoting tolerance in digital age, world summit told

  • Fact checking essential in a media increasingly reliant on citizen journalism
  • Increasing risk of falling foul of what some call 'fake news'

DUBAI: Every picture tells a story and with the rise of digital media the camera may be a journalist’s only tool to accurately convey information while playing a role in promoting tolerance among the masses.

Sharing this view was a panel of journalists and media professionals speaking at the World Tolerance Summit being held at the Madinat Jumeirah resort in Dubai between Nov. 13 and 14.

Exploring tolerance practices from around the world under the theme “Tolerance in Multiculturalism: Achieving the Social, Economic and Humane Benefits of a Tolerant World,” the summit’s second edition was expected to gather 3,000 participants from more than 100 countries, including top-level officials, peace experts, diplomats and youth.

Mohammed Fahad Al-Harthi, editor-in-chief of Sayidaty, Arrajol, and Al-Jamila magazines, kicked off the first day of the conference by calling on media outlets to enhance their approach to the delivery of news through frequent on-the-ground reporting and visual material.

In an era of citizen journalism and social media influencers, news media outlets have often been blamed for playing a key role in spreading false information and reporting fake news.

To combat this perception, Al-Harthi said print and digital media must elevate their standards by incorporating fact-checking tools into their day-to-day reporting.

“We must also identify the people affected in news stories in order to impact readers and bring them back to values such as tolerance. If there is no camera, there is no news,” he added.

Al-Harthi noted the importance of adopting platforms such as social media that allow news outlets to engage with their audience, creating a channel to exchange views and feedback. He pointed to Sayidaty magazine’s 2013 “White Campaign” against child brides as an example of positive use of social media to encourage the “voiceless” to tell their stories.

The campaign reached more than 42 million people in the Arab world, gaining the support of members of the Saudi royal family, government officials, journalists and NGOs from throughout the region.

Running for a period of three months, it focused on countries known to previously tolerate child marriages such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Yemen, with the goal of pressurizing governments to increase the minimum age for marriage and criminalize sexual abuse.

“This was one of the most successful campaigns carried out by the media as we were able to stop five marriages involving children in three countries,” said Al-Harthi.

Commenting on the power of images and video in news reporting, Anelise Borges, Paris-based correspondent for Euronews France, described social media as a “double-edged sword.”

She said: “The entire world is struggling to find a balance between freedom of speech and responsibility and accountability.”

Borges talked about her 10-day experience onboard the Aquarius, a vessel operated by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and SOS Mediterranee, capturing human stories of men, women and children who risked everything to reach Europe in search of a better life.

Sailing across the Mediterranean, Borges witnessed the rescue of two rubber boats overcrowded with refugees who had travelled long distances to escape the violence of war.

“We had seen these migrants as victims, poor people, and masses without names or faces. I wanted to go there and see who we are talking about and let them speak for themselves,” said Borges.

With the issue of migrants and refugees considered a major crisis in Europe, Borges pointed out that it was their voices that were “missing in the conversation” among governments today.

Through raw images and videos documenting distressing stories of struggle, Borges said she was able to explain to viewers and decision-makers the impact their choices and decisions were having on migrants.

“Our job as journalists is to tell a story, which only works through engagement and conversation with the people involved,” she said, stressing the importance of empathy. “It is not us versus them anymore.”

Sharing the same views, panelist Mohammed Khairy, a director and producer with Saint Films in Egypt, discussed his efforts to raise awareness about Christian Egyptians through his film “Jesus was here.” 

Traveling around the country to identify different sects of Christians, he documented individual stories, reflecting their struggles from a “cinematic perspective.”

In his documentary, he sheds light on the history of Christianity in Egypt, with hopes to influence intolerant views in the society of the “so-called minority” group.

“As a film director, you put a lot of effort into research and fact-checking and verifying information whether it’s from a book, a person, or a verified source,” said Khairy, commenting on the challenges facing journalists in the news industry. “At times, the process in film can take up to a year to finalize,” he added.