Iranian regime used internet blackout to hide atrocities

Man standing in street with hand to face (© AFP/Getty Images)
An Iranian shields his face from tear gas during demonstrations against an increase in gasoline prices in the Iranian capital, Tehran, on November 16. (© AFP/Getty Images)

Despite an unprecedented, country-wide internet shutdown by the Iranian regime, the world is learning the horrific toll that the near total blackout has taken on the Iranian people, including reports of a violent government crackdown and civilian deaths.

On November 16, the regime shut down internet access after protests erupted following a government hike in gas prices. Despite the regime’s attempt to stymie unrest, protests spread to 100 cities and towns.

President Trump blamed Iran’s leaders for the country’s instability and for their response to the protests. “They want ZERO transparency, thinking the world will not find out the death and tragedy that the Iranian Regime is causing!” Trump said in a pair of November 21 tweets.

The hypocrisy of regime officials tweeting while denying the same freedom to ordinary Iranians did not go unnoticed.

“While Iranian regime leaders maintain access to the internet and social media accounts for themselves and their cronies, they deprive their people of these basic tools of expression and communication,” U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said November 22 when he announced U.S. sanctions against Iran’s minister of information and communications technology, who helped shut down the country’s internet.

Iranian activist Masih Alinejad, a regime critic who lives abroad, has urged social media companies to block Iranian regime officials from posting internet messages until the Iranian people are back online. She cites human rights groups’ reports of civilian deaths.

“After more than 100 deaths and more than 1000 arrests in #IranProtests, I call on the EU and UN to monitor human rights violations in Iran,” she said in a November 18 tweet. “And I call on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook to ban Islamic Republic officials until Internet access is restored.”

The Iranian regime has a history of restricting the internet to undermine protests against economic turmoil and corruption.

The European Union called on Iranian security officials “to exercise maximum restraint in handling the protests” and said in a November 21 statement, “The rights to freedom of expression and assembly must be guaranteed.”

Hand holding smartphone to show screen to camera (© Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)
A man gets an error message while attempting to access the internet on his phone at an office in Tehran, Iran, November 17. (© Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

NetBlocks, a nongovernmental organization that tracks internet access, estimates that Iran’s blackout of more than 130 hours cost the country’s already struggling economy $300 million.

The internet is slowly coming back to normal for Iranians. During the blackout, connectivity had dropped below 5 percent. As of November 22, it has increased to 15 percent, NetBlocks tweeted.

Pompeo faulted the regime’s crackdown on the Iranian people’s freedom of expression online and in the streets.

“The United States stands with the people of Iran in their struggle against an oppressive regime that silences them while arresting and murdering protestors,” Pompeo said.