A top official in the southern Iranian city of Shiraz on Wednesday denied reports that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had been summoned to court for alleged privacy violations on Instagram and WhatsApp, both owned by the social network.
The chief prosecutor of Shiraz told the official Islamic Republic News Agency that reports of Zuckerberg’s summoning — widely picked up in international media — were false, according to Al Monitor. The alleged summons had garnered widespread attention and mockery — and even inspired #FreeZuckerberg.
Iranian courts elsewhere were busy. On Tuesday, an Iranian court sentenced eight local Facebook users to a total of 123 years in jail for “propaganda against the state” and “insulting the Supreme Leader.”
The false summons and real sentencing are the latest in a series of political battles between Iranian hardliners and Hassan Rouhani, the country’s pragmatic-reformist president. The tussle has played out, in part, over disparate approaches to internet and media regulation. Rouhani’s internet-savvy administration publicly supports increasing media freedoms, while Iran’s hardline conservatives oppose relaxing Internet censorship — and have repeatedly used their control of Iran’s courts and security services to issue threats and arrests to counter Rouhani’s rhetoric.
The falsified story of Zuckerberg’s summons reportedly originated with the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), which reported on the alleged summons on Tuesday, according to Al Monitor. The story has since been removed from ISNA’s website.
The original ISNA story quoted a technology official with the paramilitary Basij force, Ruhollah Momen-Nasab, as saying that an unnamed judged had ordered “the CEO of the Zionist company [Zuckerberg] or his lawyer” to come and pay “compensation” for alleged privacy-breaches of individual accounts, Al Monitor reported.
On Thursday, ISNA published a statement by the Fars province prosecutor’s office denying the report. “The news that has been published online is from unofficial sources of quotes from unaccountable individuals. It is necessary to avoid publishing this type of news and rumors,” according to Al Monitor.
Meanwhile, also on Tuesday, Judge Mohammad Moghiseh of the Revolutionary Court in Iran sentenced eight Iranians, including a British national, to between seven and 19 years in prison for comments they made on their Facebook pages. The cyber crime intelligence unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard — a group officially tasked with preserving Iran’s revolution — arrested the eight during the late summer and fall of 2013 for alleged blasphemy, propaganda against the state, spreading lies, and insulting Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to the opposition website Kaleme. It remains unclear whether a lawyer was present at their sentencing.
Daryoush Taghipoor, the husband of the detained Brit, Roya Saberinejad Nobakht, told the Manchester Evening News in April that Iranian police had detained his wife at the Shiraz airport in October because of her Facebook comments. The British Foreign Office told The Guardian that they were aware of Nobakht’s sentencing.
Also Wednesday, Iranian security forces arrested outspoken reformist and prominent journalist Saba Azarpeik. Police picked her up from the offices of Tejarat-e-Farda, a pro-reform weekly based in Tehran. Iran has imprisoned dozens of critical journalists and bloggers; a number of journalists have reported suffering humiliating abuse while behind bars. Since Rouhani took office in 2013, authorities have closed at least three newspapers.
In recent weeks, Rouhani has repeatedly spoken out in support of boosting Internet freedom. Facebook and Twitter are technically banned in Iran (though many Iranians and some politicians, like Rouhani, are active on them) and in recent weeks a series of conservative-led courts have threatened to ban other popular platforms, like WhatsApp and Instagram. Rouhani has vocally opposed these bans — but has taken no public steps beyond verbal denunciation (often conveyed on Twitter).
These domestic battles came to play on May 20, when an Iranian judge ordered the arrest of seven young Iranians whose video of them dancing to Pharell’s “Happy” on the rooftops of Tehran went viral in April. The arrests sparked international outrage, (even Pharrell tweeted his support for the youths) and the next day six were released — though the director, Sassan Soleimani, remains imprisoned.
Since his election in 2013, Rouhani, who campaigned on a platform of advancing social and cultural freedoms, has repeatedly clashed with Iran’s minority conservative hardliners still in control of key institutions like the judiciary and security services. Under Rouhani’s watch, Iran signed a landmark interim nuclear deal in Nov. 2013, after decades of failed negotiations with the west. At the same time, Iranians have continued to grapple with international isolation and economic difficulties amid ongoing western sanctions.