This Saturday, 16 September, marks one year since the murder of Mahsa Jhina Amini. The nationwide uprising, characterised by the Kurdish slogan chanted at Amini’s funeral, ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’, has been historic. The nature of repression has been horrific. Since the funeral of Mahsa Jhina Amini on 17 September, 2022, the regime has unleashed a brutal militarised crackdown, unlawfully killing hundreds of protesters and bystanders, including dozens of children. Javaid Rehman, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, pointed to the ‘possible commission of international crimes, notably the crimes against humanity of murder, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture, rape and sexual violence, and persecution’ in relation to the authorities’ response to the uprising.
‘ARTICLE 19 followed the horrific abuses against the right to freedom of expression and freedom of information, both offline and online. This past year has been an unprecedented milestone for freedom of expression in Iran,’ said Senior Researcher for the MENA region, Mahsa Alimardani. ‘Many Iranians withdrew their barriers of self-censorship as the uprising appealed to popular support across Iran. Despite this bravery, this also ushered in one of the most horrific periods in Iran’s history for free expression being met with brutal repression.’
Below we outline some of the concerning developments in Iran since the uprising, especially as it pertains to digital repression. Here we review the arrests and torture used to penalise online dissent and expression; the new tactics of censorship; internet disruptions and shutdowns; and finally, the focus on surveillance and monitoring.
Silencing dissent online
This uprising was marked by unprecedented levels of vocal offline and online protests. Activists in Iran used their online platforms and social media accounts to protest and report on the crimes of the Islamic Republic of Iran throughout the past year. From the journalist Niloufar Hamedi, who was arrested for photographing Mahsa Jhina Amini’s parents embracing after Amini’s death; to ordinary women who posted photos of themselves not wearing hijab , only to be arrested shortly after. The number of persecutions of online expression has been in the hundreds. Women have continued to risk harassment, torture and arrests for this kind of online expression, and this treatment continue today. The authorities’ campaigns of intimidation have included videos of brutal and horrific arrests of women who took to social media, including Dr. Leila Ziafar, who is still in custody at the time of this report. Authorities have further attempted to codify the criminality of these acts into the new ‘Hijab and Chastity Bill’. The bill includes a clause to bring heavy fines against celebrities and social media influencers for 10% of their wealth if they declare solidarity with the ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ uprising. People’s online activities against mandatory hijab will be criminalised as crimes of ‘national security’ if the Bill is passed in its current form.
ARTICLE 19 has been deeply concerned about the arrests, torture and lack of due process in the cases of Saman Yassin and Toumaj Salehi. Saman Yassin, a Kurdish musician and artist, was arrested on 2 October 2022, after vocally supporting the protests, including in several Instagram posts. Yassin was charged with ‘moharebeh’ (war against God) based on the indictment issued for him and sentenced to death. His time in detention has been riddled with physical and psychological torture, according to reports. Toumaj Salehi was similarly arrested in October 2022 and charged with crimes that are punishable by death, including ‘propagandistic activity against the government, cooperation with hostile governments, and forming illegal groups with the intention of creating insecurity in the country’. Salehi was held in solitary confinement for 252 days before being transferred to the general ward of the prison, with videos emerging indicating his torture while in custody. Salehi was sentenced to 6 years and 3 months in prison in July 2023.
Furthermore, the Islamic Republic has launched numerous online campaigns of disinformation, propaganda and fear. Much evidence exists confirming disinformation campaigns run by cyberi trolls on social media seeking to disrupt mobilisation and promotion of opposition or protest, the Jupyter Rad case being the most notable during these uprisings. Furthermore, state efforts to share forced confessions or videos of humiliated and harassed protesters on Twitter and Telegram have aided in the state’s propaganda efforts to instill fear and prevent further dissent and protests. Telegram remains the home of many channels and groups affiliated with the Islamic Republic’s intelligence forces and Revolutionary Guards who promote this harmful content.
Censorship, including VPNs
Since September 2022, protest-related digital repression has been facilitated by a number of mechanisms to curb the use of the internet. One of these methods has been a central tenet of the User Protection Bill, which is designed to disable the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) or proxies to circumvent regime censorship. At the time of writing, the difficulties in accessing usable VPNs remains a major hurdle to Iranians trying to access the internet from Iran.
ARTICLE 19 has tracked the advances in technology being developed to disable VPNs, including Deep Packet Inspection, since 2021. The Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) has also detected blocking of certain protocols that aid in disabling circumvention tools in Iran. The majority of foreign or independent applications that are not either controlled or collaborating with the state are blocked by the authorities. The start of this uprising saw the censorship of Instagram and WhatsApp in September 2022 along with many other foreign platforms. While the Apple App store was censored and eventually reopened, the Google Play store remains blocked to this day. Google’s Android operating system takes up a share of 90% of mobile users in Iran. The censorship of this app store has added an additional hurdle for acquiring safe and secure VPNs for the majority of Iranians trying to access the internet in Iran.
Internet disruptions and shutdowns
Authorities have increasingly used the tactic of shutting down mobile connections during protests in the last seven years.
From September to October 2022, the disabling of mobile connections effectively took the form of curfews whereby mobile internet providers have been unusable, if not completely throttled, from 4pm to 1am. In addition, home broadband connections have experienced extreme throttling and disruptions at times that there has been a surge in protests.
In many instances, the cities where internet shutdowns have been most extreme have witnessed authorities and security forces intensifying their use of unlawful – in particular lethal – force. This included Zahedan, in Sistan and Baluchistan Province, and Sanandaj and Saqqez in Kurdistan province, with high populations of Iran’s persecuted Kurdish and Baluch ethnic minorities. People from these minority groups make up almost half of number of people unlawfully killed by authorities and security forces in the context of the protests.This alarming trend supports ARTICLE 19’s long-held argument that, among others, internet shutdowns facilitate the commission of gross violations of human rights and crimes under international law by the authorities of the Islamic Republic.
In Sistan and Baluchistan this trend has occurred almost every Friday, as protests have consistently occurred after Friday prayers. Alarming instances of disruptions in the lead up to the Saturday 16 September anniversary pose a concern for further restrictions. This has been exacerbated by military mobilization to areas such as the Kurdistan province where protests in memory of Amini are expected.
Surveillance and tech-enabled monitoring of protesters and women
Surveillance and monitoring efforts in response to the Mahsa Jhina Amini uprising have been alarming. From forced takeover of devices; infrastructural systems to monitor mobile connections; as well as surveillance to monitor protesters and women in public spaces to aid the regime in denying rights.
In a guest essay by Azam Jangravi, ARTICLE 19 has already outlined the horrific potentials of facial recognition technology to monitor and penalise women for not adhering to mandatory hijab laws. These efforts signal a terrifying new technological and automated dimension to the new policies and new legislative initiatives such as the ‘Hjiab and Chastity Bill’, which clearly demonstrate that the authorities of the Islamic Republic are adamant to maintain and enforce discriminatory, degrading and humiliating compulsory veiling laws, despite a year of protests against this very issue.
Further, sophisticated levels of censorship and surveillance machinery have been supported by leaks from Internet Service Providers (ISPs), as an investigation by the non-profit news organisation the Intercept reveals. Their investigations of the SIAM (a web program for remotely manipulating cellular connections made available to the Iranian Communications Regulatory Authority) system’s role in targeting throttling of user access to the internet, as well as surveillance mechanisms, further adds to the alarm over users’ rights in Iran.
ARTICLE 19 is further alarmed by reports about the use of national technologies such as locally-operated platforms for taxis or food delivery sharing user data with authorities to geolocate and arrest protesters and activists. The use of private technology in the context of systematic and severe state repression further exacerbates existing concerns for freedom of expression and access to a safe and secure internet.
- Support initiatives that establish gender equality in Iran;
- Provide adequate channels for asylum and migration for those facing persecution, torture and unlawful arrest;
- Leverage all channels of diplomacy and trade with the Islamic Republic to ensure accountability and an end to human rights abuses;
- Ban the use, transfer, and sale of facial recognition and remote biometric recognition technologies that enable mass surveillance and discriminatory targeted surveillance; and
- Prevent tech companies within their jurisdictions importing or transfering surveillance technologies to Iran, and to investigate instances where such transfer has resulted or facilitated human rights abuses.
- halt the sale and transfer of surveillance technologies that facilitate human rights abuses in Iran;
- undertake rigorous human rights due diligence to identify and mitigate any possible negative impacts on human rights in Iran as a result of their products or services;
- enhance protection for Iranian users’ data against online threats, including state surveillance, harassment, and prosecution;
- preserve evidence of human rights abuses shared on social media platforms, and document the impacts of internet shutdowns;
- Provide support to protect the expression of Iranian users from over enforcement or mass reporting when documenting or taking part in protests;
- Ensure that human rights abuses are not platforms by social media companies.