Rouhani Admin Facing Backlash Over Plan to Give 100 Vetted Journalists Uncensored Internet Access
Journalists Tweet “I’m Not Interested” to Protest Discriminatory Internet Policy
Iranian journalists and editors working for various news publications in Iran have strongly criticized the government’s decision to grant what has been described as uncensored internet access exclusively to 100 “approved” members of their profession.
“This is blatant discrimination against journalists themselves and against people and journalists,” the cultural affairs editor of a monthly magazine in Tehran told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) on April 6, 2018.
“It’s true that favors and favoritism are part of Iranian society these days, but to expand that to fast internet is a new precedent,” added the journalist, who requested anonymity for fear of state reprisals.
Iran maintains one of the world’s strictest internet censorship regimes, with millions of websites and social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube blocked throughout the country.
Official media outlets are also heavily censored and outlets that publish reports contrary to the state line have been shuttered and banned.
The April 2018 announcement that 100 journalists vetted by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which operates under President Hassan Rouhani, would be approved for the internet access, has been criticized for endangering journalistic independence and exposing journalists to increased state surveillance.
Several Iranian journalists protested against the decision on Twitter with the hashtag “I’m not interested” #من_نیستیم to announce that they would not apply for the access.
“Part of the reason why some journalists are joining the ‘I’m not interested’ campaign is basically because giving one group something that belongs to everyone is called discrimination,” tweeted Khosrow Naghibi, the editor of Cinema newspaper, on April 5, 2018.
“Free access to the internet is a right, not a favor,” he added.
Mohammad Mosaed, a reporter for the reformist Sharg newspaper, also criticized the policy’s discriminatory nature.
“…Personally I believe that this plan is an insult to journalists and the people and I will not use it,” he tweeted on April 5.
“We must once again repeat [former Iranian wrestling chief] Rasoul Khadem’s golden words that: If we are going to lose, let’s all lose together,” he added.
Unclear Benefits For Heightened Personal Security Risks
On April 4, the Media Affairs Division of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance announced on its website that the Taskforce to Determine Instances of Criminal Content, which is in charge of identifying and blocking “criminal” content, had approved the division’s request to offer uncensored internet access to 100 journalists approved by the ministry.
The ministry announced on its website that journalists could apply by April 20 by providing their identification papers, the name of their employer, and their mobile phone number so that they could be introduced to the Information and Communications Technology Ministry after the “verification of their identity and confirmation of professional activity.”
But it wasn’t immediately clear how applicants could provide this information. The ministry also failed to clarify whether journalists would be provided uncensored access to online news sites or the entire internet including apps and online services.
“If uncensored internet is necessary for the journalism profession, it’s necessary for all journalists,” a veteran journalist based in Tehran told CHRI. “It’s not clear why it’s only necessary for 100 of them.”
“If it’s necessary for journalists, it means it’s also necessary for doctors. It’s also necessary for teachers. It’s also necessary for students,” added the journalist who requested anonymity for security reasons.
On April 7, the reformist Ebtekar newspaper published a report echoing journalists’ privacy and security concerns about gaining uncensored access to the internet via the state as opposed to accessing censored sites with the use of circumvention tools, such as private virtual networks (VPNs) that allow users to hide their locations and identities.
“To the same extent that we don’t trust domestic messaging networks, we also don’t trust the guidance ministry and the government to give us uncensored internet,” a journalist named Zahra told the paper.
She added: “Even ordinary people have an issue with domestic messengers and don’t have much trust in them, so if someone is in the journalism profession with a lot more complicated issues and connections than other people and has no job security, she/he will certainly not use an internet line that can be easily monitored.”
The serious security flaws of Iranian-made domestic messengers in Iran have been in the limelight since a high-level official recently suggested that the country’s most widely used app, the foreign-made Telegram, would soon be blocked in Iran.
“The Real Target is Freedom of the Press”
Statements by Iranian officials that they—unlike the vast majority of the population—can freely browse the internet have garnered growing criticism over the years for the unofficial policy’s discriminatory nature.
“As minister of telecommunications, I have the authority to go online without them, so I don’t use filter-breakers [circumvention tools],” said Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi on September 13, 2017.
The decision to grant uncensored internet to a limited number of non-state officials could be a response to that criticism. But some journalists have pointed out that it’s part of a bigger plan to force them to comply with policies and rules set by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance or not be granted a journalism license.
The requirement to obtain a journalism license—currently journalists can work without one—is outlined in the Rouhani government’s General Media Organization Bill, which remains in limbo despite being submitted to Parliament during his first term (2013-2017).
“Tragedy is on its way,” tweeted Mira Ghorbanifar, the deputy editor of the reformist Ghanoon newspaper, on April 5.
“This is an effort to encourage journalists to sign up and successfully implement the media bill and introduce journalism licenses,” she added. “The internet is an excuse; the real target is freedom of the press.”
Fateme Karimkhan, a reporter for the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency, described the uncensored internet access offer as a bribe.
“Giving un-filtered internet to [vetted] journalists is favoritism and hush money,” she tweeted on April 4.
“Our blood does not have a different color than the rest of the people,” she added. “Free access to information and the internet is a human right and filtering it is a violation of that right. Personally I will not accept the favor of un-filtered internet for journalists.”