Paris (AFP) – Iranian authorities have imposed tough and targeted restrictions on internet use in a bid to stop protesters from gathering and prevent images of their crackdown on their demonstrations from reaching the outside world, observers say.
Activists have expressed alarm that the restrictions, which also affect Instagram, which has so far remained unblocked in Iran and is hugely popular, could allow authorities to carry out a crackdown “under the cover of darkness”.
Protests erupted a week ago over the death in Tehran of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, following his arrest by the notorious morality police. They first broke out in his home province of Northern Kurdistan before spreading across the country.
Internet access monitor Netblocks described the access outages as the “severest internet restrictions” in Iran since the deadly crackdown on protests in November 2019, when the country experienced an unprecedented near-complete internet shutdown.
It says mobile data networks have been cut – although there are signs of a return to connectivity – and there have been severe regional restrictions on access to Instagram and WhatsApp.
“It’s significantly different than what we saw in November 2019. It’s not as full and complete as it was then, but more sporadic,” said Mahsa Alimardani, a senior Iran researcher for the free expression group Article 19.
“But there are definitely a lot of outages and blackouts,” he told AFP, emphasizing that people were still managing to connect to filtered networks through VPNs.
‘Under cover of darkness’
Alimardani said that the Iranian authorities might be wary of the effect of a complete internet shutdown on the economy, as well as the problems of daily life, such as online medical appointments. They were also turning to the National Information Network, an autonomous infrastructure that Iran wants to develop like a local Internet, she said.
He said the restrictions had “added obstacles” to the release of videos of the protests, but that “they are still coming out”.
Videos posted on social media include viral images of women burning their veils and protesters tearing down images of Islamic Republic leaders, as well as security forces firing on protesters.
During the November 2019 wave of protests in Iran sparked by a rise in fuel prices, activists argued that the internet shutdown allowed the authorities to carry out a bloody crackdown largely hidden from the world.
Amnesty International says that 321 people died at the time, but emphasizes that this only includes confirmed deaths and that the true number may be much higher.
The human rights group said it was now “gravely concerned about the Iranian authorities cutting off access to the Internet and mobile networks” and urged world leaders to take urgent action to pressure Iran “to stop killing and injuring more protesters under cover of darkness.
The director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), Hadi Ghaemi, said “the potential for massive bloodshed is now real.”
“The government has blocked access to the Internet because it wants to prevent people from sending evidence of state atrocities to the outside world,” he said.
‘pencil free expression’
Instagram boss Adam Mosseri expressed concern about the outages, while WhatsApp, which is also owned by social media giant Meta, insisted it was not behind any access outages and “would do whatever it was within our technical reach to maintain our services”.
The secure messaging service signal confirmed that it remained blocked in Iran and encouraged external users to set up a proxy server to help people connect.
Iran’s blocking of major platforms in recent years, including Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, YouTube and TikTok, has left Instagram and WhatsApp as the two most used social media apps in Iran.
State media reports confirmed that officials had ordered that access to the two services be restricted.
Observers have also noted a regional targeting of internet outages, especially in the Kurdistan region, where some of the fiercest fighting has taken place.
“Internet disruptions are often part of a larger effort to stifle the free expression and association of the Iranian population, and to de-escalate ongoing protests,” the UN panel of human rights experts said, describing the restrictions as the third such closure in Iran. within a year.
“State-mandated internet outages cannot be justified under any circumstances,” they added.
© 2022 AFP