New mobile apps are shaping Iran’s civil society

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF AL JAZEERA)

 

New mobile apps are shaping Iran’s civil society

Iranian rights activists are creating hi-tech solutions to promote civil liberties, despite frequent internet shutdowns.

by

 During recent protests, the Iranian government shut down messaging apps Telegram and Instagram [Vahid Salemi/AP]
During recent protests, the Iranian government shut down messaging apps Telegram and Instagram [Vahid Salemi/AP]

popular uprising took hold of Iran in the final week of 2017, with thousands taking to the streets to protest against the dire economic situation in the country.

Using smartphone apps such as Telegram and Instagram, demonstrators quickly spread their message, and within days, protests erupted in dozens of cities across Iran.

In the government crackdown that followed, more than 25 people were killed and hundreds arrested.

The spread of protests once again showed the power of technology and social media, highlighted by repeated efforts by the government to block access to the mobile apps used by the protesters.

After realising the potential of these apps, many in Iran – a country with about 48 million smartphones – are looking at ways to leverage technology in their pursuit of civil liberties.

One of the latest apps is Hafez, which translates as “to protect”. Named after the famous Persian poet whose words frequently targeted religious hypocrisy, the app offers users a collection of human rights-related information.

Foremost, it is a virtual rolodex of human rights lawyers in Iran, which allows users to access legal information regarding human rights.

However, Hafez is more than just a list of telephone numbers, Keyvan Rafiee, an Iranian human rights activist, told Al Jazeera.

“Users receive daily human rights news; [it] allows them to send news of human rights violations securely; [it] disseminates important legal information to users if they are arrested, and provides the contact information for attorneys who can assist,” said Rafiee, the founder of Human Rights Activists Iran (HRAI).

Rafiee, who has been arrested for his activism six times, said having a record of human rights violations is instrumental for protesters in Iran.

“Monitoring violations that take place on a daily basis can improve human rights conditions since independent organisations are not permitted to work in Iran,” Rafiee said.

Hafez is just one of several apps Iranians are using to promote civil liberties and human rights.

“The technology is a tool, not an end result,” said Firouzeh Mahmoudi, founder of United4Iran, an organisation focussed on promoting civil society.

“For us, the main question was how to engage with the vast majority of Iranians who do not go out on the street for every protest,” she said. “We saw this niche that was not being filled; building Iran’s civic tech sector.”

One of its most prominent projects is the Iran Prison Atlas, a compendium of judges, prisons and, most importantly, political prisoners currently held by the Iranian government.

The database has played an important role in creating an overview of the number of political prisoners in Iran and has been used by the United Nations Human Rights Council as a source in their evaluations of the human rights situation in the country.

“The atlas also helps when people get out of Iran,” Mahmoudi told Al Jazeera. “When they apply for asylum, our documentation is a good way to prove they are not making up the story, since we have a record of it.

“We share and compare lists with a large number of people we work with because what we don’t want to have is false positives,” she said.

READ MORE

Inside Iran’s ‘Silicon Valley’

“A lot of time, when people leave prison, they are quiet about it, and we don’t want a situation where the government says our information is not accurate’.”

Although technologies like Prison Atlas allow for more transparency, working on it also comes with inherent risk in a country that regularly cracks down on dissent or activism.

To ensure the safety of the people working on and using the applications, Mahmoudi says there is a certain degree of anonymity.

“It is very much a decentralised network of people, we use secure methods to communicate, and we have an extensive security protocol in order to guarantee the safety of the people involved,” Mahmoudi said.

But not all apps are at odds with the authorities’ goals, which has led to some surprising results.

“Governments are not a monolithic thing; rather they have many different sides, so sometimes they end up promoting one of our apps,” Mahmoudi said.

That’s because not all the apps are political; some promote sexual health or combat domestic violence, for example.

Mahmoudi said women’s rights in Iran are not well protected, especially in marriage. Therefore, two of the apps provide examples of language for marriage contracts to make it easier for women to retain their rights to a divorce and custody of their children.

“Our sexual health app also has information on sexually transmitted diseases, a menstruation calendar and information about contraceptives, which made it one of our more popular apps,” Mahmoudi said.

“The domestic violence app allows users to contact people within a trusted circle with the push of a button in case you’re in danger, and it outlines people’s rights when confronted with abuse,” she added.

As a result, women have approached Mahmoudi and her organisation to thank them, saying the information provided by the apps made them feel safer and helped them leave their husbands.

READ MORE

Meet the Iranian tycoon smashing gender stereotypes

Rafiee said the same thing happened with Hafez, the app that promotes human rights.

“We were surprised by the scope of the usage of the application; people from small villages to large cities around Iran, who reported various data, from corruption to bureaucratic mismanagement,” he said.

“Additionally, a number of attorneys reported that they have been contacted for legal consultation.”

However, reaching more people remains a challenge, mainly because the Iranian government regularly blocks internet access, especially during protests.

READ MORE

What unblocking Telegram app means to Iranians

During the most recent protests, the government shut down messaging apps such as Telegram and Instagram, preventing people from communicating with each other.

“Iranians are young, they’re technologically savvy, and they’re educated, so it’s really critical Iran stays online,” Mahmoudi said. “When the internet was shut down for a short time during the last uprising, it was an issue.”

According to Rafiee, the reason behind these blocks is more than just preventing protesters from organising. “Free and uncensored circulation of information opens the society to changes and accelerates the process of democratisation,” Rafiee said.

To get around these obstacles, Hafez uses built-in VPN technology, which allows the app to circumvent attempts by the government to block the app.

Rafiee’s organisation is also looking to circumvent government censorship. It recently launched Toosheh, an app that allows people who do not have internet access to receive information using satellite TV technology.

“We are hoping to become more technologically advanced in order to use such tools for the purpose of advancing awareness and human rights conditions in Iran,” Rafiee said.

Mahmoudi reiterated that these apps are just tools created to help achieve a bigger goal. “The most important thing we can do is build a culture of transparency, accountability and civic engagement,” she said.

“How human rights leaders, ethnic and religious minorities and those persecuted are treated is a litmus test for the human rights conditions in a country,” Mahmoudi added.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA NEWS

 

Iran’s Supreme ‘Fraud/Liar’ Will Never Allow Honest Elections Or Any Semblance Of Honesty Or Freedom!

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Opinion

Iran Blocks Telegram

It is not strange that Iran is the only country in the Middle East that blocks services which are considered essential now like Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp as part of its continuous blackout policy. Tehran even disturbs the signal of several broadcast channels blocking citizens from any external media access.

Of all international social media applications available, Iranians are only left with the messaging application Telegram.

Telegram was formed by two Russian brothers and is headquartered in Germany. Almost 40 million Iranians use its voice messages, while 20 million use the application for texting. Being the only application available, this precious service is in high demand among Iranians who amount up to a quarter of Telegram’s users across the world.

But then the government quelled Iranians’ sole source of joy by blocking most of Telegram’s services, precisely the voice messages under the pretext of protecting national security.

The truth is that the regime blocked the application fearing it would affect the course of the upcoming elections; a course that had already been engineered.

Thousands of local candidates are “filtered” according to the criteria of the “democratic Iranian religious clerics”. In the end, only those whom they are satisfied with are allowed to run for elections. It is not a secret system and, eventually, no one is allowed to win the elections or even run for it if the Supreme Leader doesn’t agree.

The 2009 elections caused a great embarrassment both domestically and internationally because those who diverted from the leadership were figures licensed by the leaders of the regime to run for the elections.

The supreme leadership decided that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would become president and forged the results accordingly. This angered the candidates who had the best chance in winning and led to the famous “Green Movement” revolution, during which many died or were injured and arrested. The memory of the uprising has been haunting the authorities that believe this massive antagonist movement wouldn’t have been possible, especially in Tehran, hadn’t it been for Twitter and Facebook.

Indeed, back then al-Arabiya Channel relied almost completely on the videos, photos and information it received from those two platforms to cover the Iranian events after the authorities shut down its office and expelled its correspondent. The results were astounding! The regime was in confusion after images of the protests, clashes, and injuries were broadcast on international media outlets.

After reading a report published about a month ago in the Los Angeles Times about the influence of Telegram inside of Iran, I sensed the regime’s fear and anticipated its next move. The report mentioned that the security authorities had already begun warning users of political messages and forced anyone who owned a channel with over 5,000 subscribers to obtain a permit from the Ministry of Culture. The government then began a series of arrests for active users on the application.

Iran has now shut most of Telegram’s services hoping to contain the atmosphere of the parliamentary and presidential elections, which are mostly an encore of the same charade. Results can be partially or completely forged, even after the filtration and suspension done during the early stages of candidacy.

The regime is really concerned with controlling the reactions of the Iranian street to avoid the repetition of the Green Revolution.

No surprises on the level of the presidential elections are expected because the approved candidates are just copies of each other.

Even former President Ahmadinejad, despite his importance and history, was banned by the Supreme Leader from running for this election. Ahmadinejad shocked everyone and announced himself a candidate with a series of clarifications and apologetic statements saying he didn’t disobey the directives of the Supreme Leader. He pledged to withdraw from the elections after the first round and said he only participated to support his friend, a presidential candidate, and give him the media and public attention.

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is the former general manager of Al-Arabiya television. He is also the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, and the leading Arabic weekly magazine Al-Majalla. He is also a senior columnist in the daily newspapers Al-Madina and Al-Bilad. He has a US post-graduate degree in mass communications, and has been a guest on many TV current affairs programs. He is currently based in Dubai.

More Posts