The order was issued on 30 April at the behest of the Prosecutor’s Office for Culture and Media, which accused Telegram of “disrupting national unity, allowing foreign countries to spy on Iran by giving access to a great deal of information gathered about the country and its citizens, spreading insults about what is sacred and religious, disseminating anti-Islamic publicity and fake news designed to confuse the public [and] being used by Daesh [Islamic State] to endanger national security.”
The court issued the ruling independently of the government, which implicitly disassociated itself from the measure in a statement released the next day. President Hassan Rouhani had repeatedly undertaken not to “authorize the blocking of social networks.”
The court was clearly following the lead set by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who called for Telegram to be permanently blocked after a wave of protests in January, when several apps including Telegram were blocked for 12 days.
An initial directive in mid-April banned universities, schools, state agencies and the media from using foreign messaging services for external communication purposes. It was at that moment that Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Rouhani and Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri closed their Telegram accounts.
Internet access in Iran has been badly disrupted since 1 May, the day on which mobile phone and Internet service operators were required by the court order to begin to “totally block Telegram and allow no other software to access it.” However, like Facebook and Twitter, which have in theory been banned in Iran for years,” Telegram is still accessible via Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).
“The Islamic Republic of Iran continues to have a single overriding goal, which is to keep tightening its grip on news and information, deny its people the fundamental right to be informed and to allow no more than a limited vision of reality by means of a ‘Halal Internet’ under its complete control,” said Reza Moini, the head of the Iran-Afghanistan desk at Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
The ban on Telegram has coincided with an increase in government attempts to promote the “Halal Internet,” which consists of a national online information network and of messaging services developed solely by Iran.
For more than a month, the regime has been urging Iranians to switch from Telegram to Soroush, a messaging service created by companies linked to the national radio and TV broadcaster, which is under complete state control.
Telegram, which allows users to encrypt their messages, had 40 million users in Iran, nearly half the population. It was constantly used by companies, politicians and the news media, as well as ordinary citizens.
Iran is ranked 164th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2018 World Press Freedom Index.