Wednesday January 03, 2018

'When it gets to this level of crisis, everything is scary': an Iranian protester speaks

Iranian students clash with riot police during an anti-government protest around the University of Tehran, Dec. 30, 2017.

Iranian students clash with riot police during an anti-government protest around the University of Tehran, Dec. 30, 2017. (EPA-EFE)

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Images of the unrest in Iran have spread across the world in recent days, but what does it feel like to actually be there, in the chaos and violence on the streets? The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti spoke to one protester about his experience:

This transcript was edited for clarity and length.

AMT: What are you seeing around you, or how are authorities reacting, what's happening to the people who protest?

Protester: When we're not chanting, the plainclothes police and other police don't really do anything. But the moment that people start voicing their demands and chanting they come at us with brutal force. And the riot police will attack.

IRAN-RALLIES/UGC

People protest in Tehran, Iran, on Dec. 30, 2017, in this picture obtained from social media. (Reuters)

AMT: Have you been injured in the last couple of days while protesting?

Protester: Yes I have. A couple days ago in the student park when the protest started. The special forces riot police announced that they're breaking up the protest and that's when things got very violent. I took a couple hits from a baton and they attempted to apprehend some of us by hitting us and then trying to isolate us from the others so they could take us and stop us from voicing our demands.

'They threw him into a car that was waiting. These cars are also not marked so they're not police cars. I don't know what happened to him.' - A protester in Iran witnesses an attack by plainclothes police

AMT: Have you seen others getting injured? What are you seeing happening to other people?

Protester: Just today I witnessed a young guy, and I'm not sure what the reason was but I saw plainclothes police attack him and they were able to drive him out of our protest crowd and they began beating him with their batons. They threw him into a car that was waiting. These cars are also not marked so they're not police cars. I don't know what happened to him. Even his friends who tried to come to his aid was thrown into a car and driven away.

AMT: So why are you protesting? What is that you want from the government?

Protester: I hesitate to use the term human rights because, really, these rights to me are so basic: civil rights, free elections, an open society, the government is now saying that these gatherings are illegal but these people don't even give us the right to protest.

'Standing your ground is scary. Protest is scary but you know what else is scary? Silence.' -  A protester on the streets of Iran

In all respects we are denied these basic fundamental rights. We don't have the right to choose who we want to represent us. In terms of the economy, every day unemployment rises, every day inflation rises, and all we hear is about the millions of dollars that are being embezzled from this country, and these reasons force us to stick to our demands. Also the political prisoners who are in jail were simply there for speaking their mind.

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University students attend an anti-government protest inside Tehran University, in Tehran, Iran, Dec. 30, 2017, (Associated Press)

AMT: I just have one more question for you. I am reading that the head of the revolutionary court says those protesters who are arrested could end up charged with waging a war against God and that would mean the death penalty. What do you make of what they're saying? Does that scare you? 

Protester: Of course I'm scared. We're all scared. But the future that we face in this country is no less scary than our present circumstances. When it gets to this level of crisis, everything is scary. Standing your ground is scary. Protest is scary but you know what else is scary? Silence.


Crackdown on internet freedom in Iran

The Current is withholding the protester's identity for his own safety. He spoke to us on a burner phone, something which doesn't surprise Mahsa Alimardani, who researches internet freedom in Iran at a UK-based NGO, Article19.

"Iranians have been living under censorship and the prospect of surveillance for years, so I think they're very tech-savvy," she tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Iran protests escalating as government crackdown looms4:27

Alimardani says the Iranian government reached out to Telegram — a messaging service quite like WhatsApp, but which also includes public channels people can follow — and asked for curbs to be put in place.

When the company stopped responding, the government shut down and blocked the only uncensored foreign media platforms, Telegram and Instagram. Disruptions to general internet services followed: sites outside the country have been blocked and users restricted to locally hosted content, Alimardani explains.

The strategy may backfire: in trying to clamp down on foreign sites, the government has also blocked parts of infrastructure that support local Iranian businesses. It's a move that Alimardani says is counter-intuitive to what the government should be doing to help the economy.

Iran

President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a cabinet meeting in Tehran, Dec. 31 2017. Rouhani said that people have the right to protest but those demonstrations should not make the public "feel concerned about their lives and security." (Iranian Presidency Office via Associated Press)

Telegram is a popular app in Iran; boasting 40 million- 45 million users per month (it is estimated 45 million Iranians have internet access). People use it for everything from weather updates, to staying in contact with friends and family, to accessing foreign news services. Alimardani says it's a vital tool for information flow, but that the question of whether this is "a Telegram revolution" misses the point.

"We can't really know what the effect or the significance is right now, but we can gauge the reaction of the authorities," says Alimardani. "Telegram has been popular since 2015, but it's only in the past few days they've been cracking down and becoming sensitive about it."

Looking back to election demonstrations in 2009, Alimardani notes there was a discourse of  a Twitter revolution, which in retrospective was incorrect.

"Twitter was significant in the way that it was bringing out information for people outside … Telegram is a bit different in that it does has a significant user base inside Iran, so in that way it is helping with the flow of information inside the country," she says.

'Telegram has been popular since 2015, but it's only in the past few days they've been cracking down' - Mahsa Alimardani

"But the same discourse is coming about that from the government: (Ayatollah) Khamenei came out yesterday and said this is all foreign influence. This discourse of 'foreign influence' often times coincides with the reasons they censor these foreign platforms. So it's kind of similar to what they were saying about Twitter and Facebook back in 2009."

In terms of foreign influence, Alimardani says tweets from the U.S. president are not helping ordinary Iranians, and if anything this furthers "that discourse of foreign influence."

"Donald Trump wants Instagram to be unfiltered? Well of course, he wants to put his agenda through Instagram," she says.


Tweets from the streets of Iran

These Iranians are sharing news and comment on the crisis, through both English and Farsi, and creating context for a watching world. Click on their tweets below to learn more.

These accounts are not affiliated with CBC or The Current.

Masoumeh "Masih" Alinejad-Ghomi is an Iranian journalist and writer, and creator of My Stealthy Freedom.


Maziar Bahari is an Iranian-Canadian journalist and filmmaker, based in London. During the 2009 protests, he was arrested without charge, and detained for 118 days.


Mahsa Alimardani researches Iranian internet freedom at a UK-based freedom of expression NGO, Article 19. She is tweeting about the protests with a focus on the role of social media platforms and messaging services.


Armin Navabi, originally from Iran and now based in Vancouver, is founder of @AtheistRepublic.


Heshmat Alavi is a freelance writer, who is adding context to the videos being posted from the streets.


The Current did contact the Iranian Mission at the United Nations and the Iranian Embassy in London to ask them to respond to the events in Iran.  We have not yet heard back.  

This segment was produced by The Current's Samira Mohyeddin, Lara O'Brien, Howard Goldenthal and Yamri Taddese.