Iran’s Deputy Attorney General Abdolsamad Khoramabadi has announced that his office has tasked the Basij organization to take a leading role in cracking down on the country’s cyberspace. “About 18,000 people [Basij members] voluntarily monitor the cyberspace and report any violations by websites and [online] social networks to the office of the Attorney General,” he said earlier today. Two months ago, Tehran’s Prosecutor General Abbas Jafari-Dolatabadi said that more than 30 agencies worked on cyberspace matters in the country, but he described their performance as “unsatisfactory.”
Comment: Since 2013, President Hassan Rouhani has done little to fulfill his campaign promises of working for Iranians’ freedoms and social liberties, including regarding the regime’s crackdown on social media and access to the internet. According to the BBC Persian, Iranian judicial authorities have censored or shut down a great number of websites in recent years.
According to Iran’s cyberspace police agency, 85 percent of the Iranian population have access to the internet through their mobile phones, which includes 29 million young users. Statements by Iranian authorities show that that the regime sees young Iranians’ access to social media and foreign news outlets as an existential threat. On January 27, for example, an influential hardline Iranian cleric called on the country’s repressive Basij forces to counter the use and influence of foreign media in Iran. “One must not have a passive approach toward foreign media, and we should focus on investing in making the cyberspace healthy,” warned Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem-Shirazi. He also urged the authorities to increase the budget for media sources inside the country to neutralize foreign media outlets owned by Iran’s “enemies.” Although the Iranian authorities closely monitor the internet and access to foreign media in the country, Makarem-Shirazi argued that “filtering does not solve the cyberspace problem.”
The Iranian government makes it extremely hard for foreign media to operate in Iran. The BBC’s Persian service has been a primary target. Last year, the Iranian government arrested at least two British-Iranians on charges of working with the BBC Persian. On January 22, the Iranian Judiciary confirmed that a Revolutionary Court in Tehran had upheld a five-year jail term for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian charity worker, and one of the charges against her was reportedly working for the BBC Persian. Her family members denied it.
Many Iranians secretly use banned satellite receivers to watch international programs, or circumvention tools to access Persian-language foreign media outlets blocked by the authorities. But the regime has stepped up crackdown on both in recent years. In December, Ali Sabir Hamani, the head of Student Basij, announced the formation of “cyber brigades” tasked to counter cyber warfare against the Iranian regime.