Following another lockdown by the country’s authorities, Iranians are once again unable to access the internet and social media messaging platforms. The move comes after protests erupted in the country sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini (right) last Friday.
Critics say shutting down services and filtering content limits freedom of expression and prevents peaceful protest. Access to news in Iran is tightly controlled by the government and for many Iranians the only access to independent news sources is through digital platforms.
Amini, a Kurdish woman from Saqqez, Iranian Kurdistan, was visiting relatives in Tehran on September 13 when she was told by the Gasht-e Ershad. These so-called “morality police” uphold respect for Islamic morality, including the imprisonment of women who they believe are dressed inappropriately, e.g. B. wearing revealing or tight-fitting clothing or not wearing the mandatory hijab.
Morality police arrested Amini as she and her brother exited the city’s Haqqani subway station. Eyewitnesses said Amini was brutally assaulted by agents in her vehicle and then taken to a police station.
Two hours after her arrest, Amini fell into a coma. She was then taken to Kasra Hospital, where doctors said she suffered a heart attack and a brain hemorrhage from a fractured skull. She died on Friday September 16th.
On the day of Amini’s death, Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the opposition group National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), called for nationwide protests against the regime.
She said: “The resilient and resilient women of Iran will resist and defeat the tyranny and oppression of the mullahs and the IRGC. The Iranian people and Iranian women will fight back with all their might.”
On Wednesday this week, the NCRI reported that there were anti-regime protests in 86 cities in 28 provinces, and protests were particularly strong at the country’s universities.
In their usual fashion, authorities have responded by shutting down internet access to quell the protests.
Iran is one of the world’s largest censors of the internet. The country has been dealing with the Internet since the turn of the millennium and has operated a sophisticated system of hardware and software-based content filtering ever since. A broader project now known as the National Information Network (NIN), similar to China’s Great Firewall, was launched in 2005. It requires companies to use Iranian data centers and forces internet users to register with their social IDs and phone numbers.
NIN was finally fully implemented in 2019, and in the same year Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said via the internet: “During these past 40 years and today as ever, the enemy’s propaganda and communications policies, as well as their most active programs was about making people, and even our officials and statesmen are losing hope for the future. False news, biased analysis, reversal of facts, obscuring the hopeful aspects, magnifying small problems, and berating or denying big benefits have been constantly on the agenda of thousands of audiovisual and internet-based media outlets of the enemies of the Iranian people.”
The country also has a long history of using internet shutdowns to crack down on dissent.
In 2019, protests erupted across the country when the Iranian government announced a 50 percent hike in fuel prices and monthly gasoline rationing. According to reports, more than 100 people died. The government quickly shut down the internet and cellphone networks for several days.
In February 2021, at least 10 fuel couriers were killed in Sistan and Balochistan province on the border with Pakistan after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps sparked a two-day standoff blocking the road into the town of Saravan. The killings sparked demonstrations that led to more deaths, and the regime shut down the internet in several cities in the province.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said at the time: “Blanket internet shutdowns violate the principles of necessity and proportionality that govern restrictions on freedom of expression and violate international human rights law.”
The protests surrounding the death of Mahsa Amini have prompted the Iranian authorities to once again reach for the internet shutdown playbook.
NetBlocks and AccessNow report that internet access in Tehran and other parts of the country was cut off on the day of Amini’s death, and on Monday, September 19, internet access was almost completely shut down in parts of Kurdistan Province.
The KeepItOn coalition, of which AccessNow is a part, said this marks Iran’s third internet shutdown in less than 12 months. They said the “repressive, knee-jerk response to the recent protests seriously interferes with people’s right to freedom of expression and assembly.”
Iranians are increasingly turning to unfiltered channels to get their news as the only parts of the internet they can access are censored. By 2018, it was believed that more than half of Iran’s population used Telegram. In April of that year, the judiciary banned the popular messaging app, claiming it had been used to organize attacks and street protests. Since then, Iranians have switched to WhatsApp and Instagram.
Unsurprisingly, given the current protests, NetBlocks has reported that access to Instagram, one of the last remaining social media platforms in Iran, was restricted on Wednesday September 21 across all major ISPs.
The authorities appear to have cracked down on the widespread nature of the protests and, perhaps more worryingly for the regime, a large number of video clips that have gone viral that they are keen to suppress.
A peaceful protest in Saggez
Iran-Saghez women took off their headscarves in protest at the killing of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini by hijab police and chanted:
Death to the dictator!
– Masih Alinejad 🏳️ (@AlinejadMasih) 09/17/2022
Not just the boys
A woman old enough to remember freedom for women takes off her hijab #Iran. #Iranian women #WalkingUnveiled #Iranprotests #مهسا_امینی #Iranprotests #MahsaAmini #Mahsa_Amini #MahsaAminii pic.twitter.com/CHBSBP1XZo
— Anonymous (@YourAnonCentral) 09/22/2022
A clip of several men defending a woman who has removed her hijab
Another video clip shared on Twitter by British comedian Omid Djalili, whose parents are Iranian, suggested that attitudes in Iran might finally be changing.
In Iran the internet is now being cut down because they don’t want people to see something like this: a man hits a woman and thinks he can walk away. Where such acts were once the order of the day, there are dire consequences now—significantly assigned by other men. pic.twitter.com/iQ2llURxLS
— Omid Djalili (@omid9) September 21, 2022
Speaking to Index, exiled Iranian filmmaker Vahid Zarezdeh said the WhatsApp and Instagram ban means he is cut off from his young son and the rest of his family, who are still in the country.
He said: “In the absence of independent parties and free media, Iranian society gets its news and events, social and political issues from the Internet. News reaches its audience very quickly and people can easily distinguish fake news from real news. How do you ask? The solution is very simple. If you watch state television, you can understand which news is true and which is false. Whenever the government reacts sharply to news and prepares a report, there is a high probability that the news is true, and if it ignores the news and is indifferent, it means it is fake.”
State television has covered the protests, but its coverage has focused less on women’s protests, instead implying that the riots were caused by Iran’s enemies rather than being spurred on by the regime’s crackdown. Surely the TV viewers in the country have not seen the clips above.
“This is a system of oppression and the Iranian regime doesn’t care what the world community thinks about it and about human rights,” Zarezdeh said.
He added: “It has been more than forty years since Iranian women have been ignored by the Islamic regime. Now they have found the courage and faith to face the bullets empty-handed and without a scarf.”