On Tuesday, February 20, after a night of violent clashes between protesting Gonabadi Sufis and the police, a number of Iranians across the country reported that their access to the Telegram app had been disrupted. In a country where access to most social networks and foreign news websites is blocked, Telegram has become the primary tool for Iranians to access news and opinions other than what is provided by Iranian state media.
On Tuesday afternoon, Telegram announced that the problem was not limited to Iran and a number of users in Europe and other countries in the Middle East had also experienced disruptions.
Nevertheless, considering that the disruptions occurred immediately after the clashes, Telegram once again became a hot topic in Iran, especially with the increased presence of security forces in areas where the deadly confrontation took place.
In the absence of other major social networks, most of which were blocked in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election more than eight years ago, Telegram has turned into the main social platform for communication in Iran. More than a year ago, Telegram reported that 40 million Iranians were using the app and this number has likely increased since then.
And, once again, during the clashes that took place on February 19, people turned to Telegram for news and to communicate. The website Alef, which is owned by Ahmad Tavakoli, a conservative member of the Expediency Council, reported that although BBC Persian is blocked in Iran, people are able to access news, including moment-by-moment coverage of the recent clashes, via BBC Persian’s Telegram channel. According to the Alef website, BBC Persian’s Telegram channel has 1,160,000 subscribers in Iran.
This by itself shows the importance of Telegram as the primary medium for access to urgent news in the absence of other trusted sources of information.
But Politicians Want Telegram, too!
However, it is not only ordinary people who rely on Telegram. Officials and politicians also use the app. During the clashes between dervishes and the police, the reformist member of parliament Alireza Rahimi chose to publish the minutes of an emergency meeting conducted by parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee on his Telegram channel.
On the other hand, the usual objections to Telegram have also resurfaced. Hardliner figures and critics of President Rouhani demanded that the government pressure Telegram to block channels affiliated with the Gonabadi dervishes. One of them was Mohammad Saleh Meftah, the administrator of the hardliner news site Farda, who tweeted: “Somebody should wake up the respected Minister of Communication so I can introduce him to a number of Telegram accounts that belong to the terrorists and ISIS dervishes. Everywhere in the world they would shut down social networks that carry such terrorist content!”
And there were other attacks against the Sufis. On Twitter, individuals referred to as “Hezbollahis” cited the death of three policemen after they were run over by a bus during the clashes, and demanded that the Amad News Telegram channel, which they said supported this “terrorist” action, be blocked. Authorities had previously criticized the channel during the nationwide protests in December and January, accusing it of encouraging violence. A few days after those protests started, Telegram was blocked across Iran.
Early on in the December and January protests, Telegram CEO Pavel Durov reported that Iranian officials had asked Telegram to block channels that covered or encouraged the protests. At first, Telegram blocked the Amad News channel because not only had it encouraged the protesters to use Molotov cocktails, but it had also shared a video of a man threatening government officials and agents with armed action. But then Telegram’s decision drew criticism from Iranians and others, including free internet advocates, as reported by the Washington Post. When Telegram eventually rejected the request for blocking specific channels, Iran blocked the entire nation’s access to the social network.
But the block was lifted after less than two weeks, and Iranians were able to access Telegram once again. It appears, however, that the Islamic Republic authorities continue to be obsessed with Telegram.
Telegram a“Terrorist Tool”
On Wednesday, February 21, the website Jahan News, which is owned by Alireza Zakani, a former conservative member of the parliament, claimed: “Telegram and Instagram are tools of terrorism for intelligence networks and those who want to overthrow” the Islamic Republic [Persian link]. The report added that certain Telegram channels started their activities under the guise of exposing financial corruption to gain the trust of the Iranian people, but this was actually part of a long-term plan to create unrest in Iran. Unfortunately, said Jahan, Iranian political groups pursuing their own political interests fell into this trap.
The website criticized members of Rouhani’s administration who are against filtering to such an extent that it described them as being “more Catholic than the Pope.” It demanded that sites like Amad News be blocked.
It is unlikely that the controversy over Telegram will fade anytime soon. Even before the recent clashes with the dervishes, those who oppose Telegram's accessibility in Iran had already started looking for a “tame” alternative.
Alternatives to Telegram or a Security Trap?, IranWire, February 9, 2018
The Gameshow Host Behind Violence in Iran, IranWire, January 6, 2018
Censorship and Self-Censorship During the Protests, IranWire, December 31, 2017
A Messaging App That Can Change Iran, IranWire, May 17, 2017