Thousands of protesters gather at Pearl Roundabout in the heart of the Bahraini capital Manama February 15, 2011. (REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed)
Haphazard US crackdown on websites included Iranian dissidents

Last week’s DOJ dragnet included Shiite religious websites, even ones at odds with Tehran’s regime.

This article was co-published with The Intercept

There is no love lost between Ayatollah Sadiq Shirazi and the Iranian government. In 2018, authorities arrested the dissident cleric’s son for calling Iran’s supreme leader a tyrannical pharaoh. Soon after, Shirazi’s followers stormed the Iranian embassy in London.

So it came as a surprise when the U.S. government blocked Shirazi-affiliated, London-based news websites in a crackdown on Iran’s “malign influence.”

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice seized and censored 33 websites as part of a retaliatory action on the grounds that they violate U.S. sanctions on Iran. Some of the websites belonged to Iranian propaganda networks. Others were Shiite Muslim religious outlets that appeared to have nothing to do with — or were even at odds with — the Iranian regime.

One of the websites, a London-based Bahraini diaspora network, had been a refuge for exiles fleeing repression.

“We’ve seen this for years, where well-meaning efforts to address disinformation campaigns or terrorist propaganda have these serious human rights impacts, because they capture too much,” said David Greene, civil liberties director and senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a technological civil rights organization.

The crackdown is a test case for American control over the internet, as the U.S. government flexed its muscles over the information sphere in a way few states could. The choice of targets also raises questions about whether there are enough guardrails over this newfound power — and whether U.S. officials can separate their political struggle with the Islamic Republic of Iran from an ideological struggle against Shia Islam.

“At the same time the Saudis are trying to claim the Sunni beliefs and religion in their name, Iran is trying to do the same thing with Shia beliefs,” said Mustafa Akhwand, director of the Washington-based organization Shia Rights Watch, who said he has been in touch with the U.S. government about issues relating to adherents of the Islamic sect. “I have told the administration many times, you are not doing a favor for yourselves. … Shia are trying to disaffiliate themselves from Iran, and you are doing everything you can to tell the Iranians, ‘These are yours.’”

Critics of the moves worried that a lack of transparency around the website seizures cloaked cases of mistaken identity and other errors. In the case of one of the Shirazi movement’s channels, Al Anwar TV, Akhwand believes that the U.S. government may have been trying to close al-Anwar 2, a pro-Iranian station that was set up to compete with the Shirazi-aligned network. Al-Anwar 2’s website is still online.

“Making a mistake like that is showing that the administration — or whoever put [al-Anwar] in — did not do their homework at all,” Akhwand said.

(The departments of Commerce, which assisted in the U.S. decision, and Justice did not respond to a request for comment. The State Department told reporters on Tuesday that it had nothing to say and again declined to comment in an email to The Intercept and Responsible Statecraft. The Intercept and Responsible Statecraft initially emailed questions to Al Anwar, but the server responded with a ‘delivery incomplete’ message more than a day later.)

Advocates for free speech and democracy in the region also said the seizures of media websites raised thorny issues about freedom of speech in the U.S. and could set dangerous precedents for governments abroad.

“The people who are in this country” — the U.S. — “who want to receive information from them, their willing readers, do have rights to receive that information,” according to Greene. He adds that his “greatest concern” is the impact the decision will have on civil liberties in other countries.

“What the U.S. does with respect to freedom of speech has implications around the world, because we hold ourselves out — mostly rightfully so — as the gold standard for freedom of speech,” Greene said. “What this tells other governments, both democratic governments and nondemocratic governments — the message it sends to them about how they can shut down, censor, seize foreign news services is really concerning.”

Former Iranian journalist Omid Memarian agrees.

“Iran is one of the most repressive countries when it comes to freedom of speech, and has a long history of banning papers, and jamming satellite channels,” said Memarian, now communications director for the advocacy group Democracy in the Arab World Now. “But for the U.S. to use the same tactics to deal with its enemies, it strengthens hardliners’ propaganda narrative that the U.S. uses values like freedom of speech for political purposes.”

“Shiaphobia”

The Justice Department claims that the censored Shiite websites were “operated by” Iran’s state-run Islamic Radio and Television Union, like many “components of the government of Iran … disguised as news organizations or media outlets.”

The Islamic Radio and Television Union does list the media websites as members. But it’s not clear what membership entails, other than a willingness to apply and an agreement to post only Islamically acceptable content. One of the censored stations, in a statement to Responsible Statecraft and The Intercept, denied it had any affiliation with the union.

Some of the censored sites, like PressTV and al-Alam, are state-run media. Others, though, are a far cry from Iranian propaganda.

Several of the censored sites are part of religious movements at odds with the Iranian government —longstanding and public confessional rifts in Shia Islam over the role of religious authority in civil government. While revolutionary clerics in Iran created a theocratic republic, many other eminent Shiite jurists — some of whom had sites affiliated with their movements seized — follow a more traditional path of “quietism,” or a belief that clerics should not hold direct political power.

Karbala TV, for example, a channel affiliated with Iraq’s Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a revered cleric who opposed theocracy after the U.S. invasion in 2003, was censored. Sistani has occasionally clashed with the U.S. vision for Iraq but has been viewed as a stabilizing force and even at times an American ally.

Other channels that were censored, such as the Shirazi movement’s al-Anwar TV and Ahlulbayt TV, belonged to schools of thought that supported the Islamic revolution in Iran, but have since its inception found themselves increasingly at odds with the government, often because of esoteric disagreements over how Islamic rule should function.

“These stations are all religious stations and are not part of the Iranian media,” said Ali AlAhmed, a Saudi American media expert who said he briefly advised al-Anwar TV. “The Shirazi movement can be described as anti-Iranian state. This is well known and is not private information.”

Shirazi comes from a long line of prominent clerics, and his family has been at odds with the Iranian government over issues of religious authority since the early years of the Islamic revolution. Iranian authorities in turn labeled the dissident ayatollah a “cult” leader and British “mercenary” who aims to stir up Sunni-Shiite discord.

The Shirazi movement’s most famous disciple in the West is the cleric Mohamad Tawhidi, who calls himself the “imam of peace.” Tawhidi once hosted a Shirazi-aligned television show, but is now a frequent commentator about Islam on right-wing Western media.

In the case of Sistani, the Iraqi cleric, the U.S. government recently claimed that one organ of his movement did not have ties to Iran. A few weeks ago, a U.S.-funded television station accused al-Khoei Foundation, a charity run by Sistani’s followers, of being a front for Iranian terrorism. Facing backlash, the U.S. State Department disavowed the story and affirmed that al-Khoei Foundation is a “well-regarded international charitable and educational organization.”

“In the minds of many in the U.S. federal government ‘Shi’a’ equals ‘Iranian state,’ even if you are clearly at odds with the Iranian state and its religious structures,” said AlAhmed. “This has cost so many Shia lives and allowed for Shiaphobia to fester across the American government, media, academia and other places.”

Shia Muslims are a majority in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan. They are a small minority in the Muslim world overall and have often been the victims of violent attacks, including the recent massacre at a girl’s school in Afghanistan.

Some of the censored websites belonged to Shia-led political movements that appeared to have little to do with Iran.

One of the websites that was seized, LuaLua TV, is a Bahraini opposition channel founded by exiles in London fleeing their country’s post-2011 crackdown. Bahrain’s government — which is engaged in a campaign of torture and repression against peaceful dissidents — has long attempted to censor LuaLua TV for its critical coverage.

The station said in a statement that the censorship “represents a confiscation of press freedom, a prosecution of opinion, and an assassination of free speech.” It called the U.S. move “a victory for the oppressive, tyrannical regimes over the repressed peoples whose rights are violated.”

Lualua TV told Responsible Statecraft and The Intercept that the channel has no connections to Iran’s Islamic Radio and Television Union, and that officials with the station had received no advanced warning or other communication from the U.S. about the seizure. “The USA claim of lualua being associated with Iran or any Iranian union is completely baseless and false,” Lualua TV said in its statement. “We believe seizing the website of the only independent Bahraini TV Channel ‘Lualua’ is not only disappointing but it is clearly a violation to the freedom of press, a soft and calm assassination of the freedom of speech especially that we face true shut down over all kinds of freedoms in Bahrain.”

Jalal Fairooz, an exiled former Bahraini member of parliament, said he is “surprised” to see LuaLua TV censored.

“The people of Bahrain have only this source for spreading their grievances with unfair treatment by the government,” he said. “The Bahraini regime is an ally of the United States. Is that enough to shut down the voice of the Bahraini people?”

Yet another one of the seized websites was al-Forat News, owned by Iraq’s Hikma movement. The movement broke off from a pro-Iranian political party in 2017 and has been pushing to curb the power of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq ever since.

“Al-Forat is a TV channel owned by a political leader FRIENDLY to the United States,” political risk analyst Kirk Sowell wrote on Twitter. “Whoever put them on the list, get a clue.”

Minimum Accountability

Tuesday’s crackdown was not the first time the U.S. government has censored foreign content online. Many registries for .com and .org domain names are based on American soil, so the Department of Justice has long insisted that it could seize foreign websites from domain registries if they violate U.S. law. In the case of the alleged Iranian propaganda channels, the U.S. claims the domain registries are violating U.S. sanctions.

U.S. dragnets against Iran have also previously swept up more than their intended targets. U.S. sanctions have long forced Iranians and even Iranian Americans off of popular online services, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Tuesday’s mass website seizure came at the tail end of the Trump administration’s campaign to drive pro-Iranian content off the internet, part of the “maximum pressure” campaign organized by right-wing, anti-Iran forces in the administration.

In September 2020, U.S. authorities seized the websites of Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, citing U.S. counterterrorism sanctions. A few months later, the U.S. shut down the websites of several “fake news organizations,” alleging that Iranian intelligence was using them to interfere with the 2020 election. Prosecutors cited U.S. economic sanctions on Iran and the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which regulates foreign propaganda organizations operating on American soil.

That same month, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on the Islamic Radio and Television Union for its alleged connections to the Iranian military.

American think tanks may have helped push the U.S. government into making the decision. U.S. authorities often rely on “open source reporting” from journalists and academics to make decisions on sanctions, according to the Office of Foreign Assets Control.

In January 2019, the risk management firm Kharon published a report alleging that the Islamic Radio and Television Union — as well as the Shirazi-aligned Ahlulbayt TV and the Iraqi Hikma movement — were connected to components of the Iranian military under U.S. sanctions.

In May 2021, the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank, published a report praising U.S. sanctions against the Islamic Radio and Television Union but calling for “[a]dditional action against traditional media entities” and “affiliated television channels, radio stations, websites, and related organizations around the region.”

The sanctions against the Islamic Radio and Television Union were used to justify Tuesday’s censorship decision. Because the Iranian broadcasters’ union is now under U.S. sanctions, the Department of Justice claimed, it would not be allowed to purchase American domain names without a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces sanctions and issues exemptions.

U.S. authorities’ statement on the decision was “disappointing,” said Greene, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, because it did not show the “extreme care” that should be taken when shutting down online content.

“We don’t learn anything about the conversations that went on behind this, what type of human rights assessments that went on. There’s no indication that there are free speech interests here,” he said. “What you would want to see is some type of process where someone is notified that they are in violation of some of these rules. Then they have an opportunity to correct that, or to argue that the rules do not apply to them.”

Indeed, there is no sign that U.S. authorities even asked these websites whether they actually belonged to the Islamic Radio and Television Union.

Ahlulbayt TV noted in a Wednesday statement that it had “not received any legal correspondence from any government or regulatory body” before its website was shut down, and was now working “to address the mistaken grounds on which this decision has been made.”

Greene said, “It is a cautionary tale in that we just don’t have enough information from the government that gives us the confidence that this was done in a careful way.”

This story has been updated to include a statement from Lualua TV made after publication.

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