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Mixed Messages? Iran's State Broadcaster Uses Telegram -- To Hail A Ban On Telegram

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Iranian authorities have blocked social media and messaging apps to foil would-be organizers and quell ongoing antigovernment protests.

But in one minor regard, state officials appear to have decided that if they can't beat 'em, they'll join 'em.

The country's state broadcaster, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), has used the banned messaging app Telegram to hail the authorities' ban on that very same app.

Iranian authorities blocked access to Telegram soon after protests erupted on December 28. Protesters had used the encrypted app to share videos and organize rallies.

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Angry rallies have continued and even spread to a total of around 100 cities and towns, despite a death toll of at least 22, according to RFE/RL's Radio Farda. Authorities have made over 1,700 arrests and deployed troops in local shows of force.

But now IRIB has posted a video of Iranians praising the ban on state television on January 3. It later posted the clip on the state broadcaster's official Telegram channel.

The two-minute video includes interviews with Iranians on the street. One man says the ban has allowed him more time to see his family, while another says he no longer has "headaches" from using the app.

Social-networking sites like Twitter have been heavily filtered in Iran and branded Western tools of espionage, yet they have been widely used by some of the country's most senior authorities.

IRIB has come in for particular criticism amid the antiestablishment protests across Iran. Iranians on social media have accused the state broadcaster of amplifying pro-government rallies and of distorting coverage of antigovernment protests.

Under the hashtag #banIRIB, Iranian social-media users -- many of them from outside the country -- have called on the United States to impose sanctions on the state broadcaster. They include Reza Pahlavi, the exiled son of the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who ruled Iran until his overthrow in the face of religiously inspired revolutionaries in 1979.

Images have circulated on Twitter of a seemingly staged interview from days of unrest in 2009, with a woman appearing to read from a text held up by a state TV crew. The original photo emerged during a crackdown on mass antigovernment rallies following former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection.

The prepared text reads: "These people are rioters and should be arrested and penalized. Thank you so much IRIB for freedom of expression and democracy."

Others have shared photos of similar vox pops that have appeared in the past.

Others have posted stills from footage shown on state TV that is supposed to be of recent pro-government protests but which Iranians claim are months old.

An estimated 47 million Iranians use mobile Internet in the country of 80 million, officials say, and some 40 million are said to use Telegram, often with antifiltering tools.

For some, it has become a key source of news and a way of bypassing Iran's highly restrictive media environment.

Iranian Telecommunications Minister Azari Jahromi said this week that Telegram would only be unblocked if it removed "terrorist" content from the app. He said restrictions would be lifted in "several days" if calm was restored on the streets of Iran.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.