The Revolutionary Guards Corps has announced that it arrested Ruhollah Zam, the founder and administrator of Telegram channel Amad News.
The Guards issued a statement about the arrest on the Amad News channel — to prove that it had control over the account, and to demonstrate that news of the arrest was genuine — and then told Iranian news agencies afterward. It appears to be using Zam to deliver a message to Iranian dissidents in general, warning them that they are not safe anywhere and that the Guards can always hunt them down and bring them back to Iran.
Following the announcement, on the evening of October 14, Iranian state television showed footage of what it claimed to be the arrest. In the footage Zam is seen wearing a blindfold and making a televised apology, stating that he regrets his media activities over the last three or four years. He also insists that he should not have trusted the French government, and that while it had promised to protect him, it instead arrested him. He then states that trusting any government is wrong.
“In a professional, skillful and multi-faceted operation and by using modern information techniques and innovative methods, the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit succeeded in directing and tricking foreign [intelligence] services and lured Ruhollah Zam into the country and arrested him,” the statement said, describing Zam as “the head of the counter-revolutionary and hostile Amad News network that in recent years — under the guidance, support and financial backing of foreign services and the support of counter-revolutionary elements outside the country and their domestic operatives — has acted as one of the main bases of the enemy and has conducted vast psychological operations to create divisions in the foundations of the Islamic system, to promote fear of Iran, to spread lies, to plant doubts in the minds of the young generation toward religious beliefs, and to prepare the ground for violent and terrorist actions and to create unrest and chaos in the country.” The statement does not mention how the Guards arrested Ruhollah Zam.
Amad News Telegram channel was founded in the summer of 2017 and soon made a name for itself by publishing news about corruption among top officials of the Islamic Republic. Ruhollah Zam claimed that he had deep sources within the regime and that he had access to its secrets. The Telegram channel broke a number of key news stories, including a corruption scandal involving Sadegh Larijani, who was until earlier this year the chief of the Iranian judiciary.
When Telegram blocked the channel on December 31, 2017 following nationwide protests in Iran, Amad had more than 4.1 million subscribers. Telegram argued that it blocked the channel because it had encouraged violence, armed uprising and social unrest. After Amad News was blocked, its administrators set up other channels, which were also blocked by Telegram because their names resembled Amad News. Eventually, the channel was replaced with Seda-ye Mardom (“People’s Voice”), and today it has more than one million subscribers. Its most recent post concerns the arrest of Ruhollah Zam.
Islamic Republic officials and state media have repeatedly claimed that the Telegram channel was linked to western intelligence and espionage services, and a number of Iranian journalists were arrested on suspicion of cooperating with it. Amad News repeatedly denied any connection with domestic journalists.
Ruhollah Zam is the son of Mohammad Ali Zam, the former head of the Islamic Development Organization’s Arts Seminary and deputy head of the Free Trade Zones’ Organization. When Amad News was first founded, Mohammad Ali Zam wrote an open letter to his son and asked him to avoid “any attack against the regime.” He wrote, “You and your friends’ activities in media outlets such as Amad News are alien to our feelings toward the Supreme Leader…By publishing baseless and unfounded news, these media can create unrest and chaos that can lead to the dominance of foreigners with the excuse of reforming the revolution.”
In response, Sam Mahmoudi Sarabi, who had been presented as Amad News’ editor in chief, wrote a letter to Mohammad Ali Zam, denying that his son played any role in the Telegram channel. He wrote that the channel was run by a media group under Sarabi’s supervision.
Ruhollah Zam himself also claimed he had nothing to do with the channel, but the security agencies never took him seriously. In December 2017, Iranian state TV broadcast a documentary entitled Last Station of Lies, which revealed that an “information trap” had been laid for Zam. It reported that the Islamic Republic’s intelligence agents had infiltrated Amad News’ sources and it aired recordings of Skype conversations between Zam and an individual allegedly working for an Iranian intelligence agency. It was claimed that Amad News published the fake news the individual gave Zam.
The documentary also broadcast a phone conversation between Ruhollah Zam and his father, in which Mohammad Ali Zam expressed worries about Amad News. Hardliner media reported on the conversation extensively and Zam said that his family was under enormous pressure from security agencies.
In an interview with IranWire after the documentary was aired, Zam claimed that he had known about the documentary and that he himself had recorded his chats with a person identified as “Alireza” in the documentary [Persian link]. At the time, he posted some of his own videos on Amad News. In one of them, Alireza could be seen dancing, singing and smoking opium. “His name is Alireza Abbaspour Rashki,” the video reported. “He was a senior official who was highly trusted by the intelligence ministry. For instance, the intelligence ministry would send him to the currency market to inject a few million euros so that the price of foreign currency would come down. Alireza had been in contact with us for two years and the news that he gave us was true. But over a separate case, the intelligence ministry placed him under arrest for one week. At that time his wife sent me a message telling me not to call Alireza because he had been arrested. When he was released he called me and said, ‘I threw my mobile under the desk and I did not let them discover that I was in contact with you.’ But he was lying. They learned about our connection right away and started making the documentary.” Zam also claimed that Alireza had been taken into custody again just one hour after Last Station of Lies had been broadcast.
Iranian news agencies have reported the news of Ruhollah Zam’s arrest, and the Revolutionary Guards Corps is boasting that its intelligence agency had trapped him once again, “even though he was under the guidance of French intelligence service and was supported by American, Zionist and other intelligence services and was protected day and night.”
The arrest soon drew attention on social media. Some people speculated that Zam had traveled to Iraq to meet his father and that is where the arrest took place. People with close links to the Iranian government have claimed on social media that Zam was arrested with the cooperation of Interpol. There are also speculations that his arrest was part of a prisoner exchange with European countries.
It is not clear which of these scenarios, if any, is the truth. The question is this: Will Ruhollah Zam ever get a chance to tell his own side of the story?
The Gameshow Host Behind Violence in Iran, January 6, 2018
Censorship and Self-Censorship During the Protests, December 31, 2017
Will the Larijani Brothers Go for Ahmadinejad’s Jugular?, December 16, 2017