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Iranians arrested for sharing jokes about Ayatollah Khomeini using phone apps

Marianna Tzabiras/IFEX

The Iranian authorities keep a close watch on electronic messages. When jokes about Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic's founder and former Supreme Leader, began circulating in Iran via the WhatsApp, Tango and Viber mobile phone apps in mid-September and were posted on Facebook and Twitter, a response from the authorities was not long in coming. Twelve netizens were arrested. In light of these developments, Reporters Without Borders recommends the utmost care when using these apps.

WhatsApp, Viber and Tango

“The intelligence services [will go after] people who circulate insulting comments about Ayatollah Khomeini online,” Kamal Hadifar, the head of Iran's cyber-police force, FETA, warned on 12 September. “Private messages on Viber and WhatsApp can be monitored by the FETA police.”

WhatsApp, Tango and Viber allow you to send a message from your mobile phone via the Internet to anyone in your address book. These messages are exposed to the same hazards as any data passing through the Internet, including blocking, interception and surveillance, and are apparently being monitored by the Iranian authorities.

Of the three apps used to circulate the jokes about Ayatollah Khomeini, only WhatsApp encrypts the content of messages. IT security experts have nonetheless revealed flaws in WhatsApp's security. With enough effort, anyone controlling the Internet (fixed line, 3G or Edge) is capable of accessing message content. In Iran, the Revolutionary Guards control the main Internet Service Providers through the Telecommunication Company of Iran, while the three leading mobile phone operators are government offshoots.

Just two weeks after Hadifar's warning, Ebrahim Raissi, the Islamic Republic's prosecutor-general announced “the arrest of those responsible for these insulting messages on certain social networks.”

Reporters Without Borders is concerned about the widespread use of these apps and the lack of information about the dangers attached to their use by journalists and netizens, so we contacted WhatsApp, Tango and Viber with the aim of finding out more about their security measures. As none of them has so far responded, we recommend not using these apps to transmit sensitive information.

Iran's Internet – crackdown or development

After the sarcastic messages about the Revolution's former Supreme Leader went viral, government supporters began talking of a “conspiracy” and calling for more controls over the Internet in Iran.

The imam of the city of Mashhad, who is close to the current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, accused the communications minister of causing havoc by trying to improve Internet access. “The Leader announced that high-speed Internet should be avoided, but we know that his recommendation has been overlooked and all our young people now have Internet in their pockets, and this on its own promotes corruption,” the imam said.

Several government members including information and communications technology minister Mahmoud Vaezi have referred to the need to find alternatives to WhatsApp, Viber and Tango. “As long as we don't have a substitute for these applications, we will oppose blocking them,” Vaezi said.” He added that, “the government has signed a contract with three universities for a 100 per cent domestic product that will be ready in six months.”

Ever since President Hassan Rouhani's election in July 2013, the level of Internet controls has been the subject of much debate in the highest government circles. The authorities have continued to develop Internet infrastructure for economic reasons. According to official figures, Iran has 36 million Internet users and an Internet penetration rate of 49 percent, making it one of the region's most connected countries. The Rouhani administration has not abandoned the idea of a “Halal” (national) Internet but clearly wants a fair amount of flexibility in its implementation.

According to figures published by the Tehran chamber of commerce, Iran's imports of mobile phones and other IT equipment from China and the United Arab Emirates last year – 1392 in Iran, running from 21 March 2013 to 20 March 2014 – totalled nearly 4 billion dollars (2.3 billion from China and 1.6 billion from the UAE).

Around 100 Iranian companies import IT equipment and most of them are owned by the Revolutionary Guards, who presumably do very well out of the trade.

A total of 20 journalists and 28 netizens are currently detained in Iran, which is ranked 173rd out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

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