One year after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani assumed office, the regime in Tehran is apparently stepping up surveillance of its citizens’ online and telephone activities, threatening some with punishment for “seditious” activities.
Recently, a viewer of VOA’s Persian service living in Shiraz sent several images of SMS text messages that were sent to his phone after he had called in to VOA’s interactive Straight Talk TV program.
“You have been influenced by foreign media’s anti-security propaganda,” reads one text message. “If you contact the media outlets outside Iran you will be subject to punishment by Islamic Laws.”
One message dates back to 2013, while dates of others have been obscured. There is also incomplete information as to where the text was sent from.
Straight Talk co-host Rozita Namini has heard similar stories over the last several years.
“In my experience, not everyone gets these, and it depends on the topic and what’s being said,” she said. “Authorities seem to be targeting younger people especially; they’re very concerned about what the young people are saying and watching.”
Mahsa Alimardani, an Iranian blogger living in Canada, agrees.
“This is very ordinary,” she told VOA via email. “Many folks associated with foreign media are often harassed in this manner.”
The worry from some, however, is whether the government in Tehran is beginning to crack down harder now that Rouhani has been in office for one year.
On Wednesday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei met with Rouhani and his Cabinet and issued a stern warning to Iranians regarding what they say publicly.
Referring to “red lines” and “seditious activities”, Khamenei cautioned Iranians to “keep distance” from those activities or organizations that Tehran says threaten Iranian national security.
“There are definite red lines that you can’t cross,” said Kaveh Adib, a producer for VOA’s Persian language programming. “As Khamenei recently said, they don’t really care what you’re saying, as long as anything being said doesn’t threaten the security of the state – which basically means the regime.”
Adib said most Iranians know that the government there routinely monitors citizen’s phone calls – both who is being called and what’s being said.
While the Internet is also heavily filtered, it can be easier to send emails and images critical of the regime online than over the phone.
By sending text messages that read, in part, “Your unlawful activity has been detected, repeating such activities will be punishable by law,” Adib said it’s clear Tehran is working hard to frighten individuals from speaking their minds.
“It’s a clear warning,” said Fred Petrossian, online editor in chief at VOA’s sister broadcast service Radio Farda. “I think when there’s a crisis in Iran, or a demonstration, or some sensitive political anniversary – such as an election – they become much more alert and try to control and try to stop outflowing of information to outside,” he said.
There’s growing evidence that authorities may be more alert.
A group who posted what appeared to be a relatively innocuous video of them lip-syncing to Pharrel’s hit song ‘Happy’ found themselves hauled to jail. The detention of reporters, like the Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian, has increased lately. And just last month, an Iranian court sentenced eight young people, aged 11 to 21, to a total of 127 years in prison for posting “anti-regime” material on Facebook.
Robert Ruby, a staffer at Freedom House, said SMS monitoring and auto-texting isn’t uncommon, especially at sensitive moments, such as during a presidential election.
“It is our impression that this type of bulk texting is mainly used as a ploy by governments to intimidate citizens,” Ruby said via email, adding it was “similar to how Ukrainian protestors received texts on their phones stating that their presence at the Maidan had been recorded.”
And in spite of the warnings and harassment, Radio Farda’s Petrossian said Iranians continue to post critical material online, and they haven’t stopped calling in to programs like those on Radio Farda.
“Thirty years after the Iranian revolution, people are starting to speak up and speak out,” he said. “People really don’t accept this kind of full control and Big Brother kind of thing. They want to get involved and speak out. It’s something I see every day. “
Still, the threatening text messages haven’t yet slowed the number of daily phone calls or emails sent to Straight Talk. Host Namini said they take 20 calls daily during the hour-long program, and often receive twice that many voice messages.
Said PNN producer Adib, “If they arrested everybody who ever criticized the government, they’d have to arrest the entire country.”