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Iran: Combatting unrest with silence and internet blackouts

A wave of internet outages was imposed in Iran Wednesday, ILNA news agency reported, a day before commemorations called for on social media for those killed in unrest last month. We find Iran consistently resorting to internet blackouts to combat protests and unwanted narratives, a strategy now employed by regions worldwide such as Iraq, Sudan and India in Kashmir - that also underscores how internet and apps like WhatsApp have become essential for political movements across the world.

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A wave of internet outages was imposed in Iran Wednesday, ILNA news agency reported, a day before commemorations called for on social media for those killed in unrest last month.

The cut came on the orders of security bodies, the news agency said, citing what it called an informed source at Iran’s information and communications technology ministry.

“This restriction on internet access solely includes international traffic of mobile phone lines,” the source was quoted as saying.

AFP correspondents in Tehran reported disruptions on Wednesday to internet connections and other related services

It also excluded what the source called “internal traffic”, indicating only domestic websites would be accessible.

ILNA said international connections would be limited in the provinces of Alborz, Fars, Kordestan and Zanjan, and that this was likely to be increased to include others.

A later update by the labour-focused news agency excluded information from its original report, including that the outage had been ordered by security bodies and the province names.

Read more: Protest-hit Iran says ‘enemy conspiracy’ defeated

AFP correspondents in Tehran reported disruptions on Wednesday to internet connections and other related services.

Evidence of Internet Disruptions

NetBlocks, a website that monitors international internet outages, also reported the disruptions, tweeting that there had been “evidence of mobile internet disruption in parts of #Iran” since 6:30 am (0300 GMT).

“Real-time network data show two distinct drops in connectivity this morning amid reports of regional outages; incident ongoing.”

ILNA said international connections would be limited in the provinces of Alborz, Fars, Kordestan and Zanjan, and that this was likely to be increased to include others

The outages come ahead of planned commemorations for people killed in street violence that erupted last month during demonstrations against fuel price hikes.

At the time, authorities imposed a week-long internet blackout as police stations were attacked, shops looted and banks and petrol stations torched.

The Iranian government implemented a near-total shutdown of internet services after protests began on November 15. The uprisings were sparked by the announcement of hikes in petrol prices across the country of at least 50 per cent. They quickly spread to cities and towns across the country and turned political, with protestors demanding high-ranking officials step down.

Officials in Iran have yet to issue an overall death toll for the unrest, but human rights group Amnesty International has put the number at more than 300.

Read more: “Cosmetic surgery is Blasphemy”, Iran arrests Instagram celebrity

Among them was Pouya Bakhtiari, a 27-year-old who reportedly died in Karaj, the capital of Alborz province.

Mehr news agency reported on Tuesday that his family were arrested after they were found to have been “carrying out a counter-revolutionary project”.

Bakhtiari’s Instagram account, reportedly run by his family, had announced a ceremony marking 40 days since his death would be held at Karaj cemetery on Thursday.

The Instagram account was still active with more than 19,000 followers on Wednesday.

Why internet blackouts?

The Iranian government has been trying to persuade users to subscribe to its own communications applications, but the vast majority of Iranians still use foreign-run apps like WhatsApp. Protestors were even using route planning app Waze to mobilise for demonstrations, explained Mahsa Alimardani, a PhD student and internet researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute and researcher at freedom of expression watchdog Article 19.

As well as trying to reduce mobilisation, the Iranian government has been trying to control the narrative inside the country. “It’s quite effective, when you force people not to have any sources of information but yours, controlling that narrative becomes very simple,” said Ms Alimardani.

The shutdown has also made the job of monitors and rights organisations outside the country very hard, explained Ms Alimardani.

“Verification of some of these atrocities, mass deaths, mass arrests – it’s become very hard with this internet shutdown because there’s lots of misinformation,” she said.

Iran vs blackouts in India and elsewhere

Iran is not the first country to employ an internet shutdown as a means to combat popular uprisings. Neighbouring Iraq, for instance, has sporadically cut citizens’ access to internet since the start of anti-government protests on October 1.

India after scrapping Kashmir’s special status on Aug 5, had resorted to an unprecedented internet shutdown which in many ways still continues after four months and 20 days. India blocked international satellite channels on cable, phone lines, cellular connections and internet. In recent weeks land lines have been restored and limited one way connections have been allowed on cell phones but only for receiving pass words and codes from banks and other financial institutions. WhatsApp and other such apps that can help in political communications are strictly forbidden across Indian controlled Kashmir valley.

In last two weeks, during protests by Muslims and liberal activists across India against CAA and NCR once again government of PM Modi resorted to internet blackings across many cities. There are international site that monitor that internet blockings and outages across India.

Nevertheless, Iran’s shutdown is different in some ways.

Amin Sabeti, director of digital security NGO Digital Impact Lab, said that no other shutdown has been implemented across such a large country, for such a length of time, and been so effective in preventing the dissemination of information.

Citing recent shutdowns, across the world he explained: “In Kashmir, Iraq or Sudan, you could still find journalists, they could report back – for instance from the BBC. For Iran it wasn’t the case.”

GVS News Desk with additions from news agencies.

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