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Instagram Next Up For Iranian Censorship?

A senior Iranian official has said the country is prepared to block Instagram once authorities sign off, a move that would deny 24 million users -- including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rohani -- access to the popular social-media platform.

"We are waiting for consensus regarding the filtering of Instagram, but if waiting proves to be pointless then the prosecutor will take the necessary decision," Javad Javidnia, secretary of Iran's state committee on online censorship and deputy state prosecutor in charge of cyber affairs, was quoted by Iranian media on January 1 as telling Peyvast magazine.

Javidnia has in past weeks spoken about the alleged dangers of Instagram, saying it has become a "slaughterhouse" for the youth and claiming that "many scholars, professors, and students” were demanding it be blocked.

In July, a deputy prosecutor-general warned against the dangers of fraud on Instagram, and said that the filtering of the platform was up for consideration.

Senior Iranian official Javad Javidnia made the comments about a potential Instagram ban.
Senior Iranian official Javad Javidnia made the comments about a potential Instagram ban.

Iranian media have taken the comments as an indication that blocking Instagram -- which Iranians not only use to share photos, news, and information, but also to debate politics and other issues -- is a mere formality.

"It appears that the decision to filter Instagram is gradually nearing [the finish line]," the reformist Shargh daily wrote on January 2.

Instagram, as well as the widely used messaging app Telegram, were briefly filtered in January 2018 amid antiestablishment protests in the country.

At the time authorities claimed that the move was aimed at maintaining peace during the protests, which spread to more than 80 cities and towns.

In May, Iran filtered Telegram, claiming the communications tool endangered national security.

Brief Thaw

The move was opposed by the government of President Hassan Rohani, who entered office in 2013 on the promise of allowing Iranians more freedom and less censorship.

Rohani, who has largely failed to fulfil his early campaign promises, publicly criticized the ban, saying it was "the opposite of democracy."

Rohani's communications minister, Javad Azari Jahromi, told reporters in July that Instagram would not be blocked.

The reports of renewed Instagram scrutiny come as hard-line conservatives appear determined to push for even tougher online censorship in Iran, where tens of thousands of websites, including news sites and social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, are already blocked. Many Iranians access blocked sites by using antifiltering tools.

In a December interview with the semiofficial news agency ISNA, Javidnia suggested that as an Islamic republic official he could not just sit back and watch the "disasters" allegedly taking place on Instagram.

"Will God and the martyrs accept it from me?" he asked.

The reformist newspaper Shargh said Javidnia appeared to be following the footsteps of his predecessor, Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, a staunch defender of state filtering who was blacklisted by the United States for engaging in state censorship.

Amid the speculation, a lawmaker said that Instagram was supposed to have been blocked by the end of the Iranian month of Azar (which ends on December 21).

"It didn't happen in due time and it is not clear when the filtering of Instagram will take place," Ahmad Salek, a member of the parliament’s Cultural Committee was quoted as saying last week. He didn’t provide more details.

In recent months Iran has arrested a number of individuals over "immoral" and "anti-Islamic" pictures and videos shared on Instagram.

In July, Iran’s state-controlled television caused outrage by airing what appeared to be the forced confession of a young woman who had been arrested for posting dance videos on her Instagram page. Several other individuals had been reportedly detained on charges related to their Instagram activities.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.