Photographer: Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images

Social Media Skirts Censors in Iran as Election Race Heats Up

  • Conservatives are challenging Rouhani over his economic record
  • Telegram platform has 40 million registered users in Iran

In countries with state-controlled media, being president usually gives you command of the airwaves. Not in Iran, where power rests both with elected leaders and guardians of the Islamic Republic.

So as he seeks a second term in the May 19 election, moderate President Hassan Rouhani and his supporters are increasingly circumventing the nation’s censors using social media.

A campaign video released by Rouhani’s team was aired on state television on Saturday only after the broadcaster cut extracts that it deemed politically sensitive, including chants in favor of a former premier who’s been under house arrest since 2011. Within minutes, the offending clips had been released by the president’s campaign office and were circulating via the popular messaging app Telegram, which has some 40 million users in Iran.

Rouhani’s followers have also used Twitter to criticize the president’s top conservative rivals -- cleric Ebrahim Raisi and Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf -- and to question the feasibility of their pledges or their commitment to providing greater social freedoms.

All six candidates in the race have Twitter accounts in their names, despite the platform being officially banned in Iran, along with Facebook. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians access banned social networking sites using proxy servers and VPN software to bypass Iran’s web filters.

The hashtag #Qalicopy has cropped up on Twitter in Farsi posts after Qalibaf made comments during an April 28 presidential debate that mirrored much earlier speeches by Mir Hossein Mousavi, the detained reformist opposition leader whose name was excised from this weekend’s Rouhani video.

The posts also accuse Qalibaf of copying logos and slogans used by Rouhani, and in some cases foreign politicians.

Hours after the April debate, images of Rouhani’s vice-president, Eshagh Jahangiri, depicted as Superman began appearing on social media. Jahangiri is also a candidate in the election but has indicated he’s using his run to campaign for Rouhani. He has provided a staunch defense of the president’s rule since 2013, which rivals say hasn’t benefited ordinary Iranians.

Rouhani has been a proponent of a freer Internet in Iran, portraying it as a civil right and an opportunity, rather than the propagator of immoral behavior seen by some hardliners.

Internet speeds are faster but the improvements have been modest. Instagram Live, which candidates, including the president, have used to air real-time campaign developments, was blocked last month, according to Reporters Without Borders. The request emanated from the judiciary, the report said, citing people it didn’t identify.

— With assistance by Nour Al Ali

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