Iran accused of coronavirus cover-up amid claims of 50 deaths

People wearing protective masks wait along the side of a street in the Iranian capital Tehran on February 24, 2020. Iran's government vowed on February 24 to be transparent after being accused of covering up the deadliest coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak outside China as it dismissed claims the toll could be as high as 50. (AFP)
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Updated 25 February 2020

Iran accused of coronavirus cover-up amid claims of 50 deaths

  • The government announced Iran’s coronavirus death toll had jumped to 15
  • Authorities have ordered the closure of schools, universities and other educational centers across the country

TEHRAN: Iran’s government vowed Monday to be transparent after being accused of covering up the deadliest coronavirus outbreak outside China, dismissing a lawmaker’s claim the toll could be as high as 50.
The authorities in Iran have come under mounting public pressure since it took days for them to admit to “accidentally” shooting down a Ukrainian airliner last month, killing 176 people.
The government on Tuesday announced Iran’s coronavirus death toll had jumped to 15 — by far the highest outside China — as its neighbors closed their borders and imposed strict quarantine measures.
But Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani, a lawmaker from the holy city of Qom, south of Tehran, alleged the government was “lying.”
“As of last night, about 50 people have died” from the coronavirus in Qom alone, ILNA news agency, which is close to reformists, quoted him as saying after a closed session of parliament on the crisis.
The government rejected the claim.
“I ask our brother who declared this figure of 50 deaths to provide us with a list of their names,” Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi said.
“If the number of deaths in Qom reaches half or a quarter of this figure, I will resign.”
But people on Tehran’s streets were also suspicious.
“State TV gives us statistics, but when we go to hospitals we see something different. The number of people who died is much more,” said Elahe Zarabi, 56, a housewife carrying bags of bleach.
Shoaib, a 24-year-old pharmacy employee, said the shop was running out of stocks as it had gone from selling 500 face masks a day to 10,000.
“The mullahs are saying Muslims are immune because of their faith,” he said. “How will they quarantine a huge city like Tehran when they cannot even quarantine a hospital?“
Iran has been scrambling to contain the COVID-19 outbreak since Wednesday when it announced the first two deaths in Qom, a center for Islamic studies and pilgrims, attracting scholars from Iran and beyond.

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Authorities have ordered the closure of schools, universities and other educational centers across the country as a “preventive measure.”
But it has not all been doom and gloom.
A video has gone viral of young men greeting each other by tapping their feet together to avoid infection, instead of shaking hands or the increasingly common fist-bump.
The government also vowed to be open about the disease’s spread.
“We will announce any figures (we have) on the number of deaths throughout the country. We pledge to be transparent about the reporting of figures,” spokesman Ali Rabiei said.
Assadollah Abbassi, a spokesman for Iran’s parliament, announced the latest four deaths among 61 infections after Monday’s gathering of lawmakers.
Citing Health Minister Said Namaki, he said “the cause of coronavirus infections in Iran are people who have entered the country illegally from Pakistan, Afghanistan and China.”
After reporting two deaths in Qom, Iran has yet to give a breakdown of where the other patients died.
The province worst hit by infections is Qom, with 34 cases, according to official figures.
The others are in Tehran with 13 infections, Gilan with six, Markazi with four, Isfahan with two and one each for Hamedan and Mazandaran.
The health minister said one person who died in Qom was a businessman who had made several trips to China.
Namaki said direct flights between Iran and China had been suspended, but the Qom businessman had traveled there “on a connecting flight.”
Iran’s Mahan Air said it had stopped flights to China this month, apart from eight occasions that included the delivery of virus aid to China and the return of people under the health ministry’s supervision.


Turkey to tightly control social media platforms

Updated 10 April 2020

Turkey to tightly control social media platforms

  • Failure to comply with the requirements could shrink their access by Turkish users by up to 95 percent

ISTANBUL: Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter will be legally bound to appoint a formal representative in Turkey under a new draft law that will be brought to the country’s parliament soon.

The bill is initially designed for the government’s fight against the spread of the coronavirus, but it covers clauses about social media restrictions.

According to the experts, if adopted, this bill will pave the way for exercising government pressure on the platforms.

Failure to comply with the requirements could shrink their access by Turkish users by up to 95 percent. The social media platforms are also obliged to share users’ information with the prosecutors’ office when required.

They will also have to execute decisions coming from the criminal courts for “content removal” and/or “access denial” without any exception. Even individuals may apply to state authorities to ask the platforms to remove content. The platforms could be fined up to 1 million Turkish lira if they do not comply with the request within 24 hours.

It is still unclear whether news outlets with social media sites will also have to abide by these requirements.

Last August, the state-run Turkish Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) was officially granted the authority to regulate and monitor online platforms, including series on digital TV platforms such as Netflix, news broadcasts on YouTube and social media platforms delivering news on a regular basis. Those broadcasting online were obliged to get a license first from RTUK. According to that legislation, overseas companies who broadcast in Turkey on the internet are also required to establish a company and obtain a license.

Dr. Sarphan Uzunoglu, a scholar at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University and editor in chief of NewsLabTurkey.org, said it had long been the wish of the Turkish government to keep Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Twitter — as some of the most-used social networks in the country — under control.

“This new draft that will be brought to the parliament is a concrete step toward making Turkey’s digital sphere more controllable than ever for the government,” he told Arab News.

According to Uzunoglu, it is natural that Twitter, Facebook, Google and others are questioned by governments worldwide due to their financial activities and uncontrolled flow of money worldwide.

“Some responsible governments and politicians always question this shady feature of social networks. However, unfortunately, Turkey is not one of these countries or Turkish politicians aren’t the kind of politicians that think (about) the privacy of individuals. All they want is clearly a person who will be like an ambassador for the brand in their country whom they can get in touch with on a regular basis,” he said.

The bill also requires that all data about Turkish social media users be stored in Turkey.

Uzunoglu thinks that the daily routine of such a representative will not be very different from the life of the US ambassador in the time of crisis between US and Turkey.

“The only difference is, the government will try to keep this person and social network for everything in the platform. So that will be a disaster for both the operation of the social platform and the democracy of the country. And unlike an ambassador, the national law system in Turkey will be imposed on them. So, Facebook or Twitter won’t be different from any other web site active in Turkey,” he said.

Turkey has also increased control over social media during the coronavirus outbreak. More than 400 people have been arrested for “provocative” posts on their social media accounts about the virus.

Turkey has blocked access to social media platforms several times in the recent past, especially after the military deployments to Syria.

As social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter host the remaining free-speech platforms and provide an alternative information flow, Uzunoglu thinks that being forced to give away data about their users will be an attack on individual privacy.

“This definitely shows that the government is living in a completely different reality, or they imagine to live in a completely different world,” he said.

Uzunoglu also drew attention to the problematic timing of the move, especially under the extraordinary conditions caused by COVID-19.

“Just think about the Internet freedom related activism of the early 2010s when people went into the streets for the first time to protect Internet freedom. Comparing it to the self-isolation period that we are experiencing right now, it would be naive to think that it is just coincidental,” he said.