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Supporters of Iran's President Hassan Rouhani wave flags during a campaign rally in Tehran on May 9. Iranian authorities have targeted messaging app Telegram ahead of the May 19 elections. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

Iran targets Telegram app as it seeks to control news ahead of May election

By CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program on May 15, 2017 5:26 PM ET

Iran has a history of cracking down on the independent press ahead of elections, with authorities arresting journalists and forcing reformist outlets to shut down. As Iranians prepare to vote in presidential and city council elections on May 19, authorities have turned their attention to Telegram, arresting several channel administrators for the app.

With mainstream social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter blocked for most users in the country, Telegram has become a popular way for Iranians to share news. A tech expert and a journalist with whom CPJ spoke said that Telegram played a critical role in the 2016 parliamentary Iranian election--in which dozens of moderate and reformist leaning candidates were elected to the Majles (Iran's parliament)--by allowing users to circumvent censorship. A video of former president Mohammad Khatami, for instance, in which he encouraged people to vote for reformist candidates, was widely shared on Telegram. Iranian media are banned from showing Khatami and YouTube is blocked, leaving Telegram as one of the few ways for supporters to share Khatami's message inside Iran.

A Telegram channel administrator, who goes by the name Vahid Online, told CPJ, "Telegram was the deciding factor in Iran's last election and I believe it will play a very important role in the upcoming presidential election."

The app is popular in Iran, where it has 40 million active users, according to Telegram chief executive Pavel Durov. Digital safety experts however, have criticized Telegram for security vulnerabilities such as its use of a proprietary encryption protocol whose safety cryptographers are unable to assess--unlike standard protocols, which are well-tested. It is also possible to use unencrypted chats by accident and Telegram' phone-number-based authentication system makes it easy for governments to take over accounts and access previous messages, experts have warned. Telegram told CPJ last year it rejects claims that its system is vulnerable. [CPJ recommends using Signal or WhatsApp for secure, encrypted messaging.]

Iranian authorities have also tried to regulate Telegram. In December, the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, a body that set policies on internet content, announced that Telegram channels with more than 5,000 followers must register with the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. According to the semi-official Mehr News, more than 2,000 channels are registered.

Amir Rashidi, an internet security researcher at the Center for Human Rights in Iran, told CPJ the group's research suggests the administrators were arrested because Iranian authorities had access to their identities through the registry and because they had a close connection to Hassan Rouhani's administration. A report by the New York-based human rights advocacy organization said that the registration scheme was probably implemented to help identify reformist voices.

Local news outlets reported that channels affected by the arrests include Reform News, with more than 111,000 followers, and Assembly of Reformists, with 94,000 followers, and that content on some channels was deleted after the arrests. CPJ was unable to determine if authorities ordered the channels to delete the content. Authorities have not publicly given a reason for the arrests, but Ali Motahari, a member of parliament, told the semi-official ISNA news agency, "about 12 administrators of reformist or pro-government Telegram channels have been arrested by an intelligence body." CPJ was unable to determine the status of their cases.

CPJ's review in recent months of the channels targeted found they mostly contained news, information, and analysis about Iran's presidential election, and often were supportive of reformists.

Rashidi told CPJ, "Telegram had a huge impact in Iran's last parliamentary election. Reformist activists had very limited access to major media outlets and the state radio and TV, so they used Telegram to send and spread their messages." Rashidi said that he thinks Telegram helped mobilize millions of people who voted for candidates featured on what was known as the List of Hope. "By using tools provided by the app (such as groups, bots and channels) Iranian voters were able to find names of the candidates based on the city they lived," said Rashidi.

Rashidi added that he believes the arrest of Telegram administrators is an attempt by authorities to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

Telegram has not publicly commented on the arrests of channel moderators, but the company has been critical of moves by Iran to block users from making calls through Telegram, saying in an April 17 statement that Iran's action "suggests that this move is targeting Telegram specifically."

Iranian authorities have also targeted journalists ahead of the elections. CPJ has documented in recent weeks how Iranian authorities arrested journalists Ehsan Mazandarani, Hengameh Shahidi and Morad Saghafi, and sentenced Issa Saharkhiz to one year in prison one day after he was released from jail on a separate charge. The country also blocks access to millions of websites, including news and social networking sites.

Telegram has helped Iranians to expose some of the censorship. Last month, an apparent attempt by the state-run News 1 channel to censor a live news broadcast was widely circulated on Telegram. A clip shows a news anchor about to announce that Hamid Baghaei, an ally of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is running for the presidency. Before the anchor says Baghaei's name, the camera cuts to the news room, where a second anchor says the station is experiencing technical difficulties. When the news feed returns to the first anchor, she can be heard asking the control room, "You don't want me to mention Baghaei's name?" before realizing she is live on air and finishing her report without mentioning the candidate.

Baghaei and Ahmadinejad were both found "unqualified" to run by Iran' conservative Guardian Council, which must approve all candidates that run for presidency.

The arrest of Telegram administrators has been criticized by Rouhani. The president, who has been vocal about his efforts to keep Telegram open, said last month that Iran's Minister of Intelligence informed him that those arrested "had not committed any crime," ISNA reported. Mahmoud Sadeghi, an Iranian MP, also tweeted that he is investigating the arrests. Sadeghi posted a message by a constituent who said her husband was arrested by six agents and is accused of "acting against national security." The message, which did not identify the woman or her husband, said that agents showed them a form with a Revolutionary Guard's logo on it.

Five reformist-leaning Iranian MPs also sent an open letter to the Minister of Intelligence about the arrests.

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