An internet cafe manager works on his computer in Tehran, Iran on July 25, 2019. Iranian journalists say monitored connections and technology companies' concerns about U.S. government sanctions are making it harder for them to bypass censorship. (AP/Vahid Salemi)
An internet cafe manager works on his computer in Tehran, Iran on July 25, 2019. Iranian journalists say monitored connections and technology companies' concerns about U.S. government sanctions are making it harder for them to bypass censorship. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

To cement internet control, Iran helps journalists get online

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In early 2020, a journalist in Iran received a form from Iran’s National E-commerce Union, a nominally independent group that is close to the government, requesting their name, the news website they work for, and their IP address. “With all due respect,” it read, “provide the following information to prevent any potential problem during future internet shutdowns.”

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This official acknowledgement of a potential shutdown marks a new era for digital control in Iran. “The government is not hiding it anymore,” said the journalist, who provided CPJ with a copy of the form. Like the other journalists CPJ interviewed inside the country, they requested anonymity to avoid reprisals.

Last November, as Iranians protested against worsening economic conditions, the government imposed an internet shutdown that network analysts described at the time as unprecedented because of its duration and the number of people affected. But it was also unprecedented because of the amount of government-approved content that remained available on the national intranet, experts told CPJ.

Iran notoriously controls what is published in state-approved media; most recently the official death rate from the coronavirus has been challenged by independent accounts, according to Agence France-Presse and the BBC, among other reports. Global news is filtered online, and sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are only accessible using tools to bypass censorship, as a 2018 CPJ report noted. But the shutdown targeted a much larger percentage of traffic to and from other countries. It was also apparently selective. At least two journalists told CPJ that they could access the international internet from newsrooms while the shutdown continued elsewhere—though the risk of reprisals for unsanctioned reporting made them reluctant to use it.

The shutdown, and the accompanying plan to register journalists, highlight advances in the regime’s capacity to monitor and control the internet. At the same time, some foreign technology companies—which have traditionally provided a haven for Iranians who prefer to host digital content overseas—have been blocking access from Iran to comply with sanctions imposed by the U.S. government. If more websites are forced onto regime-controlled infrastructure, experts fear that Iran’s future shutdowns could disrupt dissent without inconveniencing the ruling elite—and serve as a model for other leaders seeking sovereignty over national networks.

“The Iranian government can see which journalists are interested in what sources and reading what articles,” Nima Fatemi, the founding director of Kandoo, a nonprofit based in the U.S. focused on cybersecurity for vulnerable populations, told CPJ. “This is full control of the free flow of information—and it aims right at the freedom of the press.”

CPJ reached out to the Iranian mission to the United Nations in New York to request an interview for this piece, but did not receive a reply.

In the past, “thugs” physically unplugged servers to disable access to news articles and opposition content, Fatemi, who has spent more than a decade helping Iranians circumvent censorship, recalled to CPJ. But as Iranian authorities tighten control of how journalists access the internet, brute force tactics are increasingly mixing with more sophisticated forms of censorship, he said.

In 2018, a government censorship working group said it would allow select reporters who registered their personal details to access the unfiltered internet, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which receives U.S. government funding, reported. The next year, local news reports said President Hassan Rohani would grant journalists one year of free internet access. By early 2020, journalists in Iran told CPJ that thousands are thought to have subscribed.

Journalists know their connections are scrutinized. “If you accept getting that uncensored internet, they can see what top domains sites you are visiting—it’s passing through a single channel they provide for you,” Nariman Gharib, a U.K.-based Iranian activist who provides digital security support to Iranian reporters, told CPJ.

“All of my journalist friends had internet during the shutdown in November, including myself,” one journalist told CPJ from inside Iran. That was true for reporters in several different cities besides Tehran, the journalist said. “But we were afraid of logging in.”

“Any activity on social media, even tweeting our stories, might cause a problem,” the journalist said. They described working alongside a handful of colleagues, all of whom are registered with the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the body in charge of issuing press credentials, which is known colloquially as Ershad. “They know exactly who we are and what we report on.”

Reporters who step out of line may be in danger, according to Gharib. “Their friends may be in danger,” he said. “When journalists get arrested, police print out the tweets.”

Another journalist, who has worked for several reformist newspapers in the past decade, told CPJ Wi-Fi was available in her newsroom during the November shutdown. But that did not mean she was able to do her job, she told CPJ. “Before, they used to arrest or imprison us every time we wrote something that they didn’t like,” said the journalist, who spent two years in prison on national security charges because of her reporting. “This is their new method to make sure not only we don’t write anything critical in the media, but also we won’t use social media to criticize them,” she said. “It worked.”

Amir Rashidi, an Iranian digital rights expert based in the U.S., told CPJ that the government’s recent registration of journalists was part of an effort to establish “what businesses should stay connected during potential national shutdowns, and which ones shouldn’t.”

Long before the November shutdown, the regime had been developing an Iranian intranet, a version of the internet that is entirely run on local servers. Iranian internet service providers have offered discounted access to locally hosted sites, according to Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net, a research project partially funded by the State Department’s Bureau of Human Rights and Labor. And in May 2019, Iran’s Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, a government body charged with enforcing Islamic cultural orthodoxy, announced that the national internet was 80% complete. About a year earlier, in May 2018, officials had announced efforts to block foreign virtual private networks (VPNs) that enable access to censored global content, and develop a state-operated alternative.

Rashidi told CPJ that government-approved content on the intranet was still accessible during the shutdown. “They are mostly trying to keep the servers that are being hosted inside the country connected,” he said. The company controlling the gateways that connect Iran to the global internet was formerly headed by the current IT Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, who has been accused of personally interrogating imprisoned journalists in the past, according to the independent Center for Human Rights in Iran, which is headquartered in New York.

Blogfa, one of Iran’s most popular blogging platforms, is hosted in Canada, its founder Alireza Shirazi told CPJ. Platforms like his are under pressure to migrate their servers to Iran—where they are closer to the watchful eye of the regime and subject to censorship orders, he said.

“Services that brought their servers to Iran have received free servers or bandwidth,” Shirazi told CPJ. In November, Blogfa was unavailable during the shutdown, but competitors who had relocated remained accessible, he said. “Journalists are using Blogfa less and less in a serious and effective way.”

That pressure on overseas-hosted websites is compounded by the fact that U.S.-based servers and hosting platforms have been closing Iranian accounts and blocking some websites for Iranian viewers to comply with sanctions imposed in 2018, according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran. Developers who might choose U.S.-based infrastructure to host websites, apps, or proxies to bypass Iranian web filtering are increasingly unable to do so because of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, according to an article Fatemi co-authored for Just Security, a website from the New York University School of Law. Shirazi told CPJ that some Iranians still access such services by going through contacts abroad.

Several journalists and experts CPJ interviewed cited one recent incident as evidence that technology companies were overzealous about complying with U.S. sanctions, though it involved opinions about a designated terrorist organization that were shared online, not access to technology. Instagram, one of the few foreign social media platforms still allowed in Iran, evoked sanctions law when it briefly took down at least 15 accounts operated by Iranian journalists in January, according to the International Federation of Journalists and the nonprofit digital news outlet Coda Story. The accounts had commented on the U.S. assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, leader of a group the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization. One of the accounts belonged to Emadeddin Baghi, who CPJ research shows has spent time in Iranian prison for his reporting.

“[It] makes our voice on social media weaker and weaker,” Baghi told CPJ of the intervention, after his account was restored.

Facebook, which owns Instagram, told CPJ in February that actions against Baghi’s account were taken in error. It is not the company’s policy to suspend accounts or take down posts for discussing Soleimani or any other sanctioned entity, a spokesperson said, declining to be attributed by name.

Around Iran’s February parliamentary elections, CPJ documented increasing pressure on the local press, including raids on the home of five journalists, and the conviction of three editors on “false news,” and “defamation” charges. The reporter who shared the ecommerce union’s registration form abruptly stopped responding to CPJ’s messages. And the journalist who had served time in prison said she anticipates digital controls will only tighten going forward. “They may disconnect us again from the world,” she said.

Editor’s note: The timing of Iran’s announcement on blocking virtual private networks in the 16th paragraph has been corrected.