Iran has not yet banned WhatsApp — contrary to several conflicting media reports.
On Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani blocked a proposed ban on the free messaging service that Iran’s Committee for Determining Criminal Web Content approved earlier this week, according to the Iranian daily paper Sharq.
“The issue of banning WhatsApp was raised. The president has ordered a halt on (banning) the site,” Telecommunication Minister Mahmoud Vaezi told Sharq, according to AFP. “Until the time that we have a replacement for these sites, the government opposes filtering them,” he added.
Controversy erupted this week after several English-language news outlets, including Fox News, erroneously reported that Iran had blocked WhatsApp because the company’s new owner, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, is Jewish.
“The reason for this is the assumption of WhatsApp by the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who is an American Zionist,” Abdolsamad Khorramabadi, head of the country’s Committee on Internet Crimes, was quoted as saying in Fox’s story on May 4.
Days after the initial reports, Rouhani’s unofficial Twitter account tweeted that in fact he, on behalf of the Iranian government, formally opposed the ban. The objection was echoed by Iran’s communications minister, a Rouhani appointee.
The controversy between Rouhani and the censorship board reflects broader political rifts over the country’s domestic direction, Iranian analysts told BuzzFeed. This week, conservatives opposed to Rouhani’s rapprochement with the West over its nuclear program gathered in Tehran for a conference under the banner “We’re Worried.” Also on Wednesday, conservatives rallied in Tehran against “immorality,” while officials also ordered the closure of Ghanoon, a daily paper that covered last month’s alleged crackdown on Evin prison, which prompted widespread outrage.
Iran’s 13-member censoring committee first considered the WhatsApp ban, along with restrictions on other messaging services like Viber, in January, according to Danilo Bakovic, an internet freedom expert at Freedom House. (The committee banned messaging service WeChat in December 2013, but has yet to act on proposed new blocks to other social media services.) Many of the committee’s members tilt toward the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG), a group officially tasked with preserving Iran’s Islamic revolution — and which often opposes Rouhani’s policies. In Iran, where free speech is restricted, anti-Zionist rhetoric is also a common frame in political debates, particularly among hardliners like Khorramabadi, of the internet crimes committee.
Twitter and Facebook have been officially banned in Iran since 2009, after mass protests against ex-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection broke out, organized in part via social media.
Rouhani was elected president in 2013 on a pragmatic reformist platform. He has since become an avid social media user and gained a popular following on Twitter, which, while formally banned in Iran, can be accessed via workarounds like VPNs.
Still, worries remain over Iran’s continued censorship of the internet. Iran is currently working to develop an Iran-only internet, which would increase the ease of government oversight.