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Tuesday 16 January 2018

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Iran's hard-line Tasnim news agency has posted pictures of alleged protesters on its Twitter feed while calling on followers to identify and report them to the authorities.

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has sparked anger by using media proxies to crowdsource the identification and reporting to authorities of individuals photographed at antiestablishment protests, including indirectly through social media like Twitter.

The effort came as a week of demonstrations and violent unrest across the country eased but were said to be continuing in some places, with protesters chanting slogans against rising prices, corruption, and Iran's clerically dominated leadership.

The protest slowdown follows days of increasing shows of force in cities and towns across the country and a day of televised pro-government demonstrations to counter the eruption of public anger.

The Gerdab.ir website, which was launched a decade ago by the IRGC, posted images of suspected protesters in several cities, including two of the earliest hot spots, provincial capitals Kermanshah and Zanjan.

Gerdab called for the public to help identify the individuals, repeating a tactic it employed during street demonstrations in 2009 that attracted millions to complain of irregularities in the reelection of then-President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Gerdab pledged to release more pictures of "elements behind the unrest" and "rioters."

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has blamed foreign "enemies," but President Hassan Rohani has acknowledged that public discontent has played a role in the protests, one of the most serious domestic challenges to Iran's leadership in decades.

Pro-government supporters march during a rally in support of the regime in the city of Mashhad on January 4.
Pro-government supporters march during a rally in support of the regime in the city of Mashhad on January 4.

Gerdab's statements and images for identification have in turn been carried by news sites that include the hard-line Mashregh, Khabaronline.ir, and Jahannews.com.

"If you have any details about those in the pictures or any kind of information, including pictures, videos, e-mail, or any complaint about those causing unrest, report it via [us]," Gerdab said in a statement.

Official Crackdown

Monitoring and activist groups say official sources have acknowledged more than 1,000 arrests around the country, including at least 450 in the capital, Tehran.

Iran's hard-line Tasnim news agency, which was launched during the Arab Spring movement in the region in 2012 in part to "defend [Iran] against negative media propaganda" and is also said to be affiliated with the IRGC, has posted pictures of alleged protesters in the Iranian capital on its Twitter feed while calling on followers to identify and report them to the authorities.

Tasnim, whose coverage frequently reflects hard-line Iranian views, also posted contact numbers for Iran's Intelligence Ministry, the IRGC, and police forces for browsers to call and provide information on the individuals in the photos.

Tasnim alleged on its Persian-language Twitter feed that individuals circled in red in some photos are leaders of "the rioters" in Tehran, which has been less directly affected by the current protests than during the 2009 unrest.

Twitter is blocked in Iran, although it is openly used by state officials including Khamenei, Rohani, and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and official and semiofficial news agencies used it to spread news and other information.

But many Iranians access Twitter and other social media like Telegram through antifiltering tools.

'Stalinist Tactics'

Tasnim's move outraged some Iranian users, who called on Twitter to take action.

"This pro-IRGC news agency is putting protesters' life at a very serious risk," Amir Rashidi, an Internet security researcher with the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, wrote on Twitter on January 3.

Nader Hashemi, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at the University of Denver, tweeted, "Predictably, IRGC and its affiliates resort to Stalinist tactics of intimidation to crush protests."

Amin Sabeti, a London-based expert on Iranian Internet, is among those who have reported Tasnimnews_FA to Twitter for what he regards as a possible violation of the social network's rules of use. "Tasnim's move is a clear breach of Twitter's rules on abusive behavior and also abuse and hateful conduct," Sabeti tells RFE/RL.

Twitter says it prohibits "behavior that crosses the line into abuse, including behavior that harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence another user's voice."

It also says that users "may not engage in the targeted harassment of someone, or incite other people to do so. We consider abusive behavior an attempt to harass, intimidate, or silence someone else's voice."

Sabeti says those Tasnim reporters and editors who have shared images of protesters and called for their identification should also be "disciplined."

The Tasnim tweets remained online on January 4, some 24 hours after being posted.

The ultra-hard-line Iranian newspaper Kayhan is known for making inflammatory statements that often go against the government's official line.

When on November 6 the daily said on its front page that Dubai could become the next target of a missile attack by Yemen's Huthis after Riyadh came under attack, many thought it had gone too far.

There was criticism on social media and in the Iranian press, with many calling the daily's front-page statement foolish and unwise while warning that Iran should not provide its enemies with "an excuse" at a sensitive time.

Iran's Press Supervisory Board quickly issued a warning that the headline "Ansarollah Missile struck Riyadh, Next Target: Dubai" ran counter to Iranian national security and the country's interests.

The headline came amid a sharp escalation of tensions between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia, who in recent months have engaged in a war of words while accusing each other of destabilizing the region and promoting extremism.

Tensions skyrocketed on November 4 when Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri abruptly resigned while on a visit to Saudi Arabia and criticized Iran and the Lebanese Hizballah militia for fomenting unrest in the region.

Iran's Foreign Ministry rejected Hariri's accusations and said the resignation was a plot by the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia to foment tensions in Lebanon and the region.

Later, Saudi Arabia said a ballistic missile fired by Huthi rebels -- a Yemeni group with ties to Iran -- had been intercepted over Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

The Saudis said the attack could be considered an "act of war," with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman accusing Iran on November 7 of "direct military aggression" against the kingdom by supplying the Huthis with ballistic missiles.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on November 6 that Saudi Arabia was blaming Tehran for the consequences of its own "wars of aggression."

Amid the growing political tension, Kayhan remained defiant.

The daily said on its front page on November 7 that Iran's national interests were to defend "the oppressed" people of Yemen, not to "worry" about Dubai's skyscrapers.

Kayhan said it had merely reported "threats and promises" by the Huthis against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The daily had previously reflected the views of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but in recent years -- particularly since the 2015 nuclear negotiations -- observers have suggested that Kayhan has lost its link to Khamenei.

Nevertheless, it remains an important voice in the country's press.

Kayhan said it was ironic that Iran's reformists -- whose media the hard-line daily claimed were full of headlines that violate the country's national interests -- are suddenly worried about Iran's national interests.

"How can those who officially [put a false attractive face] on America and scare people with America's empty threats and admit to attempts [to give a good impression] of the 2015 nuclear deal, allow themselves to speak of national interests?" the daily asked.

Government spokesman Mohammad Baqer Nobakht suggested on November 7 that the daily should face tougher action for its headline and defiant position. "This is a clear media violation and, as far as I know, judicial actions are currently being taken and we hope it will be more decisive," Nobakht said in response to a question about Kayhan.

"Nothing is more important to us than national interests," he added.

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About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.

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