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Iran Prosecutor Warns Minister To Tame Social Media Or Face 'Consequences'

File photo:Attorney General, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri speaking with reporters, on Wednesday, March 13, 2019.

The Islamic Republic Attorney General has once again lambasted what he called "out of control cyberspace", describing two popular messaging apps, Telegram and Instagram, as "infernal," and called for restrictions on social media.

The ultraconservative mid-ranking clergyman Mohammad Jafar Montazeri also explicitly threatened the Minister of Information and Communications Technology, Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, with judicial consequences.

The minister should amend the situation of the internet in Iran before the judiciary's final decision on the case, Montazeri warned, adding that Azari Jahromi has only weeks for the reforms demanded by the judiciary.

The warnings by the prosecutor came while various Iranian officials including the head of the Judiciary are active on social media. Recently, in compliance with U.S. sanctions, Instagram blocked several accounts belonging to Iran's top officials and military commanders.

Introducing the newly appointed Prosecutor-General of Tehran on Saturday, May 4, Montazeri lamented that while cyberspace has its benefits, it is a field for a myriad of “corrupt” activities and crimes.

The Prosecutor-General had earlier repeatedly called for further restrictions on the internet, but it was for the first time he explicitly warned the Minister of Communication, insisting that current status of how the internet is accessed and used in Iran should be revised; otherwise, the judiciary will step in to control it.

However, Montazeri immediately played down the threat by calling Azari Jahromi to a TV debate, and respond to the questions of an expert picked by Montazeri.

Insisting that he is the people's advocate, Montazeri said that Azari Jahromi should be accountable for not "launching a national internet," "disregarding guidelines passed by the Cyberspace Council," about "allocating broadband to foreign networks," and not replacing the "infernal Instagram and telegram Channels."

The idea of launching a "national internet," inspired by the Chinese model, was primarily tabled under Iran's hardline former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administration backed by the security organizations and conservatives dominating the country. However, the idea was never implemented.

Instead, responding to the widespread protests against the 2009 controversial presidential election, the authorities blocked access to favorite social media apps, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Nevertheless, many Iranians have access to blocked apps by using internet blockage circumvention tools, such as VPNs and proxies.

Tehran's newly appointed Prosecutor-General, Ali Alghasi-Mehr also blasted the cyberspace, and maintained, "This space should not turn into a base for questioning the Islamic regime's values, disgracing people and smearing their characters."

As a rule, whenever economic conditions worsen in Iran, the Islamic Republic authorities voice more concern about possible unrest. Experiences in the last ten years show that social media can be used effectively to mobilize protesters in Iran.

Controlling social networks at the time of crises is a "must" that should "seriously be considered," the head of the Islamic Republic's Passive Defense Organization (PDO), Brigadier General Gholamreza Jalali said on April 28.

Echoing repeated calls of the Islamic Republic's conservative authorities for more restrictions on using the internet in Iran, Jalali asserted, "During crises, social networks provoke people against the government…therefore, it should be controlled."

In the meantime, international organizations have repeatedly condemned Iran for restricting access to the internet.

Based on the latest report by Reporters Without Borders on media freedom around the globe, out of 180 countries of the world, Iran ranks 170th, dropping six grades in ranking since the last survey.

The restriction is so damaging that even the Islamic Republic's President, Hassan Rouhani lamented last February that there are "no free media in Iran," adding, "We made a mistake by filtering (social media and other internet outlets)." However, it was reported nearly three months ago that the Rouhani Administration had decided to hold an "internet disconnection drill."

Nonetheless, attacking free access to the internet and social media is spreading among the conservatives dominating Iran, as fear of unrest seems growing.

An ultraconservative clergyman, officially recognized as a Grand Ayatollah, Nasser Makarem Shirazi recently labelled the internet and social media as "swamps" and an environment made for corruption. "The reason behind most divorce cases and teaching misappropriate behavior is cyberspace and the temptations hidden in social media," Makarem Shirazi insisted.

Currently, almost all major social media websites and apps, save Instagram, are blocked in Iran, while conservatives call for blocking Instagram, as well.