Iran: Dangerous place for social media users, rights activists say


Iran can be a dangerous place to be for a social media personality. The country’s Shia Muslim authorities enforce strict laws about what can and cannot be posted online and has no qualms in handing down the harshest penalties against perceived offenders.

This is what Fatemeh Khishvand found out when she started dreaming of becoming famous, posting selfies on Instagram in the hope of getting noticed.

Under the pseudonym, Sahar Tabar, she posted heavily Photoshopped photos of her looking alike the American actress Angelina Jolie and attracted international media attention when they first appeared in 2017.

This led to false rumours that the teen had undergone 50 cosmetic surgeries to look like the Hollywood star. Soon, her alter ego had almost 500,000 followers on Instagram.

In October 2019, Ms. Khishvand was arrested on a raft of charges, including blasphemy, instigating violence, insulting the Islamic dress code and encouraging corruption among young people.

Her Instagram account was deleted and for more than a year she languished in jail, detained without bail until she was handed a sentence of 10 years in prison in December last year.

The severity of the punishment was met with shock and condemnation.

“The Islamic Republic has a history of arresting women for dancing, for singing, for removing their compulsory veiling, for entering a stadium, for modelling, but come on – this time, for just using Photoshop,” Masih Alinejad, a prominent Iranian journalist and activist, said in a Twitter video.

Ms. Alinejad even called on the real Angelina Jolie in a tweet to help the imprisoned 19-year old, adding the Islamic Republic has a history of tormenting women with a gender apartheid policy.

As Ms. Alinejad’s reaction suggested, Ms. Khishvand’s case is considered a new extreme in Iran’s draconian treatment of social media users.

Precise data on internet crimes in Iran is hard to come by. But, according to research by the US-based Human Rights Activists in Iran group, at least 332 people have been arrested for their internet activities since 20 December 2016. Of those, 109 were for activities on Instagram, the group said.

As the only major social media network not blocked by the government, Instagram is a popular platform for young Iranians to express themselves.

This has created a dilemma for the government, which experts say is loath to block the tool for fear of provoking unrest, hampering business owners who rely on it for advertising, and severing a useful means of communication with its citizens. Instead, the government has attempted to act as a moderator.

“For so long, Iran has tried to police culture unsuccessfully,” Tara Sepehri Far, an Iran researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), told the BBC.

“There have been several waves of Instagram influencers being called in and interrogated.”

One wave included six Iranians who, in 2014, were given suspended jail sentences and lashes for appearing in a video dancing to Pharrell Williams’s song Happy. Another came in 2018, when a teenage gymnast was arrested for posting videos of herself dancing to pop music.

Each followed a similar pattern. Instagram personalities were harassed, arrested and prosecuted by Iranian authorities, which activists say pressured them to “confess” their alleged crimes, sometimes on state TV.

Indeed, that’s apparently what happened to Ms. Khishvand, who was paraded on Iranian Channel Two (IRTV2) as “zombie Angelina Jolie” a few weeks after her arrest.

For now, Ms. Khishvand has been shown some mercy. At the end of December 2020, she was granted bail while she appeals her sentence.

“This is a small reward for her TV admission under duress, dismissing the lawyers and obeying their plans,” her former lawyer Saeid Dehghan said.

As for the appeal, much depends on the mood of prosecutors who did not differentiate between Ms. Khishvand and the cartoonish persona she invented.

“In the end, she remains simply a teenager who is being cruelly and publicly punished and humiliated for daring to express herself outside the bounds of Iran’s arbitrary rules governing personal social media use,” Jasmin Ramsey, communications director for the Center for Human Rights in Iran, told the BBC. (Source: BBC)