love Telegram. With approximately 20 million Iranian
users, itís the most widely used messaging app in the
join channels based on their interests and spend hours
reading, sharing pictures and videos, and chatting about
sports, entertainment and news. But also politics.
the years, Telegram has helped quench Iraniansí thirst
for online political expression in a country where
Twitter and Facebook are banned. But leading up to Iranís
presidential election in May, Telegram is now seen by
some as a force thatís stifling political speech.
because in recent months Iranian security and
intelligence agencies have begun arresting Telegram
users and now require those who run popular Telegram
channels to apply for permits ó disclosing their
officials have justified the move to the local media by
saying itís a matter of national security. Users and
industry experts, however, say it has another effect:
deterring political discourse.
could pose a problem for Telegram, which touts itself as
a messaging app that protects user privacy and insists
"politically motivated censorship" goes
against its foundersí principles. Itís a conflict
familiar to many international social media firms, which
must balance their free speech ideals against the
varying rules of the countries where they operate.
by brothers Pavel and Nikolai Durov three years ago as a
messaging service with a focus on privacy, Telegram has
grown to 100 million monthly active users. It offers
messaging and group chat features with the option of
encrypted communication and popular channels, where the
users who create them can share ideas, articles,
pictures and videos with followers.
who run channels have had a level of anonymity on the
service. But in December, the Supreme Council of
Cyberspace, Iranís main agency tasked with internet
policy, established laws ordering the operators of
Telegram channels inside the country with more than
5,000 followers to obtain a permit from Iranís
Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance by the end of
February or face prosecution. As of January, around 700
Telegram channel administrators have sought permits,
according to Iranís Tasnim News agency.
addition, applicants are required to add an automated
bot to their Telegram channel as a co-administrator.
Thereís concern the bots could allow authorities to
identify ó and potentially prosecute ó users for the
channels they follow.
presence is leading some to censor their speech or stay
out of political channels altogether, according to Amir
Rashidi, an internet security researcher at the New
York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran.
the (Iranian government) collects Telegram usernames,
they can pass it to that Ďbotí and create a map of
who is following any type of Telegram channels,"
isnít unusual for state authorities to target
individuals for online dissent. Last December, a handful
of Iranians in the fashion industry were prosecuted for
posting pictures on social networking sites such as
Instagram, which officials argued promoted "Western
January, officials in Iranís Hormozgan Province shut
down around 80 Telegram channels and arrested 32 people
managing those channels, according to Iranís
semi-official ISNA channel, accusing them of
"spreading lies, disturbing public order, creating
fear and promoting immoral and anti-cultural
in February, Iranís conservative Fars News Agency
reported that authorities detained several
administrators of Telegram channels.
crackdown has heightened fear among Telegram users,
including journalists, activists and lawyers, who worry
political statements ó even those made on other
platforms ó could have major consequences if they wind
up on Telegram.
Jamalpur, a journalist who moved to the U.S. from Tehran
a few months ago, said she and her colleagues scour
popular Iranian Telegram channels to make sure comments
they made on Facebook or Twitter have not been
republished there by channel administrators.
friends in Iran, when they see their tweets republished
in these popular channels that talk about politics, they
worry. Itís dangerous for us that they republish these
tweets," she said.
point to the case of Alireza Rahmani, a public relations
director for the governorís office in Qazvin, Iran,
who was arrested last November after posting a petition
on a Telegram channel in his district asking for the
release of an imprisoned human rights activist.
Rahmani was arrested, a conservative news site published
a screenshot of his post on its Telegram channel, which
accused him of "siding with individuals engaged in
security crimes," the Center for Human Rights in
insists it isnít cooperating with the Iranian
government, which established a website outside the app
where channel administrators must register.
rules are the same for any country, including Iran and
other countries in the Middle East: We do not share data
with governments, and we do not engage in political
censorship," Telegram spokesman Markus Ra said.
the past, Telegram says it has fought back against the
Iranian governmentís request to hand over user data
and move its servers to Iran.
Berlin-based company did not respond to repeated
questions about future operations in Iran now that
Iranian officials are implementing regulations that
appear to limit speech on its platform.
STORY CAN END HERE)
tactics put Telegram in a difficult position, analysts
one hand, Telegram needs to maintain an outward display
of unwavering commitment to its free-speech and privacy
principles, but on the other, the company needs to avoid
provoking the Iranian government and losing a vital
market, independent researcher Collin Anderson said.
much as 25 percent of Telegramís total user base comes
from Iran, and thatís a significant chunk. And it
doesnít include people from the diaspora, which use it
to communicate with friends and family in Iran," he
media companies operating outside North America and
western Europe have come under increasing government
pressure in foreign markets. Turkey and Brazil imposed
temporary blocks on WhatsApp in 2016 after the company
failed to hand over user data related to criminal
investigations. And China blocked Telegram after
learning human rights lawyers were using it.
operating in authoritarian settings have little choice
but to leave the market, comply with state demands or
risk blocking, closure or imprisonment of their local
staff," a 2016 report from Freedom House said.
sentiment toward social media soured in Iran following
the disputed 2009 presidential election, when many used
Twitter and Facebook to organize protests.
then, Iranian authorities have cracked down,
establishing a complex and decentralized network of
agencies regulating the internet. And they have cast
social media platforms ó described by Iranian
prosecutor general Mohammad Jafar Montazeri as
"polluted anti-religious networks ó as an enemy.
internet "isnít freedom. Itís the worst kind of
bondage," Montazeri said in December.
President Hassan Rouhani and his centrist administration
have promoted internet freedom and used social media to
communicate with supporters, that hasnít changed the
perspective of other arms of the government.
is a lot of pressure to block Telegram during the
election, and Rouhani doesnít want to do that,"
Rashidi said. "Telegram is going to be more popular
than anytime in Iran."
the concerns about surveillance weigh on users.
who gave only his first name because he has received
threats and has family in Iran, manages "mamlekate"
a Telegram channel he started more than a year ago that
focuses on breaking news and politics.
more than 290,000 followers, Amirís Telegram channel
is one of the most popular in Iran. He has lived in
Europe since 2008, meaning he doesnít have to register
with the state. Yet he continues to worry his relatives
in the country will be punished for his actions.
I dream about being found and arrested. Itís very
intense," he said.