Embattled Instagram in Iran closer to complete shutdown than ever before

  • Eliška Pohnerová
  • 11.6.2021 12:54

The Iranian presidential election promising a major change is just around the corner. Reformists are likely to be replaced by Conservatives calling for further restrictions on the internet already suffering tight censorship. Only a few western-developed platforms have survived in such an environment, Instagram being the most notable among them. Over the years, Iranian Instagram evolved into an essential platform for political opposition and social activism. With its possible post-June restriction, hopes for secularization and democratic transition of the country are being threatened.

The Islamic Republic of Iran occupies a rank in the top 10 most censored countries worldwide. Censorship has become a political weapon allowing for weakening the imminent pressure in the aftermath of protests and political upheavals. Internet traffic is usually blocked, mobile data networks are cut off and services are restricted. Thousands of websites are banned including human rights NGOs, foreign news outlets, or popular social networks such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. According to the most recent information from February 2021, Instagram and WhatsApp (both owned by Facebook) are the only operable open social media apps in Iran. Apart from these, any other western social media apps may be approached only using proxies and virtual private networks (VPNs).

As one of the rare free-accessible platforms, Instagram is quite often in the centre of the restriction debate among the hard-liners. Such debates only intensify in relation to the upcoming presidential election scheduled on 18 June 2021. As VICE highlights: “A battle is raging inside the corridors of power in Iran. Not over sanctions, not over the country’s nuclear programme, but over Instagram.”

Fight over Instagram Freedom

The current president Hassan Rouhani came to power on election promises including the agenda for internet freedom improvement. With so many internet restrictions in place, it is hard to believe that Rouhani is hailed as a moderate leader credited with keeping platforms such as Instagram and WhatsApp unfiltered, yet it is so. Back in 2017, Rouhani commented: "If it wasn't for my government, the Internet would be so limited, even my opponents could not use it for campaigning." On Instagram, the Iranian president is followed by 2.2 million users.

“With the hardliners in power, Instagram will surely be blocked.”

Although the Iranian internet freedom is very restricted, the after-election situation could get worse. Rouhani, serving as a president since 2013, is reaching the end of his two-term limit, leaving the moderate politicians without a strong candidate. With the hardliners in power, Instagram will surely be blocked. The hardliner-controlled judiciary have already made a move summoning the telecoms minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi for prosecution, among other things, because of his refusal to ban Instagram.

Jahromi was believed to be the hope for the Iranian brighter future, especially in terms of cyberspace related-freedom. The magazine Foreign Policy even called him “the Islamic Republic’s Emmanuel Macron” based on the distance he maintained from both conservatives (hardliners) and reformists (moderates). Back in February 2021, he was rumoured to be a possible candidate for the June election, however, he has not shown up on the declared list of candidates. Given his refusal to ban Instagram as well as his progressive approach to social media and his age (the only minister born after Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979), he may be the positive change liberal Iranians would desire.

However, it is the regime that does not wish for such a change. In early May, Iran's election-vetting body announced conditions for running in the June presidential poll - conditions from a 2016 directive from Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. One of the criteria is age between 40 and 70 years, which eliminates Jahromi who will turn 40 in September. But there is a disagreement between the Guardian Council and the Presidency over the new criteria, that some even criticised as illegal. President Rouhani allegedly ordered the interior ministry to proceed as before. However, as it is the Guardian Council that reviews and disqualifies the candidates, it is likely to have the last word.

Why is Instagram such a big deal?

What has so far protected Instagram from prohibition is its character focused on sharing pictures rather than spreading messages. This proved less effective in social mobilizing efforts which kept Instagram further from the attention of authorities as the mobilization potential is apparently the main reason for the social networks prohibition. However, it doesn’t mean Instagram is safe. The Iranian Islamic authorities are opposing any western-based platforms as they claim the platforms enable infiltration into the country, decay public morality, and spoil the youth. The main problem for Iranian authorities arising from the Instagram operation is the lack of technical control over the content.

The main problem for Iranian authorities arising from the Instagram operation is the lack of technical control over the content.”

The future of Instagram and liberal-ish tendencies looks pale given the estimates. Currently, Ebrahim Raisi, the conservative head of the judiciary is said to be most likely to win the election. Already back in the 2017 election, Raisi proved to be the most popular conservative candidate after finishing second. Today, his agenda is built on the fight against corruption and improving the economy hit by the U.S. sanctions and COVID-19 pandemic.

Instagram, the trigger of Iranian freedom

The idea of a sovereign internet, which gradually gains traction in a number of authoritarian regimes over the world, is a long-term goal of Iranian extremists. Closer content-control and cut-off from the rest of the world is the one last step to complete the absolute religious conquest of the Iranian internet. Related to this is the fact of Instagram becoming a pain-in-the-neck to Islamic authorities, who are hiding their desire to tame any human voice and any social activity behind artificially tailored crimes such as propaganda, or moral corruption. This is amplified by the growth of Iranian public opposition.

An ongoing operation of Instagram might be partially secured by president Hassan Rouhani’s promise to increase internet freedom, yet his term comes to an end and Conservatives and the Islamic Revolutionary Court are eager to establish a controlled environment well suited for censorship and rule over the flow of information in the country.

“Since hardliners are against any internet freedom and they stand behind all debates critical of Instagram, we can expect further internet restrictions.”

Whether the next Iranian president will be Raisi or anyone else, it almost certainly is going to be a conservative, as the reformists are expected to be disqualified by the pro-hard-liners Guardian Council. Conservatives, on the other hand, have clergy’s preferences as they vocalize their support to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and uphold Islamic ideology. Since hardliners are against any internet freedom and they stand behind all debates critical of Instagram, we can expect further internet restrictions. This will negatively impact Iranian political opposition and social activism.

Even though Iran is a country with heavily suppressed human rights, social activism is on a rise. And for this purpose, Instagram is vital. A possible ban on Instagram might push even more people to the streets instead of silencing the protesters. There is a strong demand for internet freedom and will continue to be such.

About author: Eliška Pohnerová

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