Al-Monitor – Telegram has become the biggest social networking app in Iran, used by millions of individuals and entities. The app, founded by Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov, allows users to set up groups and “channels” for communication and is believed to have played a significant role in mobilizing anti-government protests that hit Iran in late December 2017 and early January 2018. In the wake of the deadly unrest, the popular social media app began to be perceived as an enemy of the state.
Still, President Hassan Rouhani has been accusing conservative rivals of restricting the media. “I’m wondering why some hate social media networks and why they can’t stand the flow of information to the public,” he said during an April 21 address in Tehran.
Now a hard-line politician has reignited the unending blame game over who blocked Telegram. “It was the president who ordered it during a meeting of the Supreme National Security Council,” Ezzatollah Zarghami told a group of students in Tehran Dec. 10. Zarghami is a member of the Supreme Council of Cyberspace and a former CEO of Iran’s state-funded public broadcaster. During his tenure as IRIB chief from 2004 to 2014, he faced accusations of bias, censorship and refusing to give voice to the opposition, particularly during the country’s 2009 protests over the disputed presidential election that landed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term in office.
“Telegram was banned under a verdict from the judiciary,” responded Alireza Moezzi, a top public relations official at the presidential office. “We are not suffering from memory loss! Who was behind banning Facebook and Twitter?” he added, implying that it is the conservative camp, which makes great efforts to impose such bans. In contrast, Zarghami’s comment was interpreted by some as a sign of Rouhani’s hypocrisy and treason against the nation.
Earlier this year, the social media app’s growth in Iran prompted senior Iranian authorities to promote domestically developed messaging networks in an effort to fight Telegram’s monopoly. It began when the supreme leader’s office decided to close down its Telegram channel despite having over a million subscribers. Many other officials followed suit, including Rouhani and his First Vice President Ishaq Jahangiri.
The trend was expected to spark a mass exodus from Telegram to indigenous apps. However, government statistics revealed little public interest and indicated that Telegram was still an inseparable part of the Iranians’ daily lives. Many users seem to be quietly returning, with official news channels and institutions reconstructing their channels on Telegram after finding a cold public reception through Iranian apps.
For that failure, many conservatives blame Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, the minister of communication and information technology and the youngest member of the Rouhani cabinet. Jahromi has been under immense pressure and faces accusations that he is tightening the purse strings on domestic apps while embracing Telegram. The minister flatly denies the charge, but he has been a fervent advocate of lifting bans on Twitter and Youtube, which are both openly used as key platforms by top Iranian officials.
Jahromi was also ordered by Rouhani during a speech January not to touch the “filtering button” when it comes to freedom of speech. But a few months later, conservative media outlets published a confidential letter attributed to Rouhani and addressed to the minister. Among other things, the document included the president’s directive on blocking the virtual private networks used to circumvent bans on social media.