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Citizen-journalists increasingly hounded by Iran

An Iranian man shows Telegram app messages from supporters of female conservative candidate Zohreh Elahian, on his mobile phone in Tehran, 24 February 2016
An Iranian man shows Telegram app messages from supporters of female conservative candidate Zohreh Elahian, on his mobile phone in Tehran, 24 February 2016

AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

This statement was originally published on rsf.org on 22 June 2017.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the increase in Internet censorship and harassment of citizen-journalists in Iran. According to RSF's tally, 94 Internet users, mainly users of the instant messaging service Telegram, have been arrested since the start of the year. More and more journalists are falling victim to the war between different government factions.

The latest victims include Assal Esmaeilzadeh, a journalist and photographer who was arrested without charge on 20 June 2017. The Tehran prosecutor's office for culture and media arrested her after ordering her husband, Saed Seif, who runs the Dideban e Iran news website, to report for questioning. Seif later tweeted: "My wife was arrested to put pressure on me, because they are asking me to make a statement against President Hassan Rouhani and to publish false information against ministers in his government."

RSF has learned that, on 9 April, 12-year jail sentences were imposed on three citizen-journalists who were arrested in September 2016 in connections with content they had posted on Telegram.

The three - Mohammad Mohajer, Alireza Tavakoli and Mohammad Mehdi Zaman Zadeh - were convicted respectively of "insulting [Supreme Leader] Ali Khamenei and Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic's founder," "insulting what is most sacred in Islam" and anti-government propaganda.

Users of Telegram, which is very popular in Iran, are increasingly being targeted. Telegram creator Pavel Durov has said that "Telegram has not entered into any agreements with any government on this planet," and has "no plans to." But statements by Iranian officials seem to belie this claim.

Information and communications technology minister Mahmoud Vaezi told parliament on 7 June: "Rather than block Telegram, which would drive users to turn to another app, we have reached an agreement with those in charge of it to block content of a sexual or anti-religious nature and content condoning violence and terrorism."

A total of 173,000 Telegram accounts have so far been blocked. Vaezi said he had "launched an intelligent filtering that has enabled the verification of 400 million logos and images." He said his ministry did not monitor the content of posts but added that, "in the past three years, at least 7 million addresses and 121 software applications for bypassing filtering have been blocked."

The censorship and persecution, which is officially intended to protect the public from immoral content, has been extended to political and religious content and to websites dedicated to human rights and women's rights.

Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, who heads the committee in charge of identifying unauthorized websites, reported in March 2017 that "more than 18,000 volunteers monitor the Internet and report crimes committed on social networks to the prosecutor's office."

The families of five Telegram group administrators with links to reformist circles - Seid Mojtaba Bagheri, Sobhan Jafari Tash, Javad Jamshidi, Nima Keshvari and Said Naghdi - filed a complaint on 12 June about the judicial system's slowness in handling their case.

They have been held in Tehran's Evin prison ever since Revolutionary Guards arrested them on 16 March 2016. According to the information obtained by RSF, the five men and a fellow detainee, Ali Ahmadinia, began a hunger strike on 19 June in protest against their prolonged detention.

According to RSF's tally, at least 94 Internet users, mostly Telegram users, have been arrested since the start of 2017. In most cases, journalists and citizen-journalists arrested by the regime are charged with cyber-crimes or immoral acts.

Iran is ranked 165th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.

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