In Iran, social media tells the real story of unprecedented protests, police brutality

A protester holds a placard during a demonstration in support of Kurdish Iranian woman Mahsa Amini during a protest on October 3, 2022 in Nantes, western France, following her death in Iran. (AFP)
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Updated 06 October 2022

In Iran, social media tells the real story of unprecedented protests, police brutality

  • Images of police brutality meted out on young Iranian protesters have gone viral on social platforms
  • To counter the spread of information, the regime has cut internet access and clamped down on social media

DUBAI: As anti-government protests in Iran enter their third week, the death toll has continued to rise, with more than 90 people reportedly having lost their lives in the wave of unrest sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini.

The 22-year-old’s death at the hands of Iran’s morality police, the Gasht-e Ershad, unleashed an outpouring of anger in almost every province over the strict policing of personal freedoms and the deteriorating standard of living. 

Iran’s large diaspora, spread across Europe and North America, has joined the protests in solidarity, with large demonstrations taking place outside Iranian embassies in Western capitals.

Regime authorities have so far acknowledged the death of 41 people since the unrest began yet have refused to give in to demands to relax the strict dress code imposed on women, including the mandatory headscarf.

Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s ultra-conservative president, has dismissed the anti-regime protests as a “conspiracy” orchestrated by outside enemies and has vowed to “deal decisively with those who oppose the country’s security and tranquility.”




Tehran has attempted to limit the spread of information about nationwide protests with blocks on mobile internet. (ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News)

In a statement on Sunday, he said: “At a time when the Islamic Republic was overcoming economic problems to become more active in the region and in the world, the enemies came into play with the intention of isolating the country, but they failed in this conspiracy.”

Videos and photographs emerging from Iran on social media tell a different story. Shocking images of police brutality meted out on young protesters have gone viral on social platforms, eliciting international condemnation. 

To counter the spread of images and information, the regime has limited internet access and clamped down on applications like WhatsApp, Twitter and Instagram — claiming the move was necessary in the interests of “national security.”

Tehran is no stranger to this kind of information warfare. The regime has adopted this strategy multiple times since the proliferation of smartphones and social media in order to control the narrative. 

“Shutting down mobile internet services has become a go-to for the Iranian government when dealing with civil unrest,” Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at monitoring firm Kentik said.




Regime authorities have so far acknowledged the death of 41 people since the unrest began. (AFP)

Protesters have been getting around the regime’s internet controls using secure private connections. They have also been sharing footage and details about forthcoming protests with outlets like the London-based broadcaster Iran International.

Iran’s misinformation strategy is as old as the regime itself. In the 1970s, the revolutionaries fighting to topple the US-backed monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, sought to portray their leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, as a freedom fighter.

Khomeini’s close entourage, which included Western-educated advisers, helped him weave a message that appealed to Iranians inside and outside the country, cleverly modifying his words to appeal to Western audiences. 

Their methods proved extremely effective. Western journalists, who at the time relied on the translations given to them by Khomeini’s advisers, willingly broadcast these messages to the world.

Today, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps utilizes a stable of media outlets, including Fars News, Tasnim and others, to set the political agenda and undermine domestic dissent. 




Protests have spread across Iran over the death of Mahsa Amini after the young woman was arrested by morality police. (AFP)

The IRGC also uses these platforms to broadcast propaganda about operations in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East where the regime holds sway with local proxies. 

At the same time, the English-language state broadcaster Press TV is used to appeal to viewers in the West, often featuring American and European commentators who support Tehran’s policies and worldview. 

In March this year, Ruhollah Mo’men Nasab, former head of the Iranian Culture Ministry’s Digital Media Center, lifted the lid on how the regime disrupts the flow of information and discredits activists.

Describing his work as “psychological warfare,” Nasab boasted of developing software and “cyber battalions” to manipulate the narrative on Twitter through fake accounts. 

Arash Azizi, a history and Middle East specialist at New York University, says the regime has been developing its techniques for internet information manipulation for more than a decade. 




Shocking images of police brutality meted out on young protesters have gone viral on social platforms, eliciting international condemnation. (AFP)

“Perhaps the first Twitter revolution was in 2009 as events were unfolding in Iran,” Azizi told Arab News, referring to that year’s mass protests, known as the Green Movement, which exploded in response to the disputed reelection of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. 

“Nowadays, Iranians use a variety of online tools to get their voice out, which is why the government has tried to shut down the internet entirely,” said Azizi. 

“Iranians abroad and many tech experts, however, are playing an active role in dominating social media with messages about what’s taking place.”

A Twitter account called @1500tasvir, which is run by a group of 10 Iranian activists based inside and outside the country, was first set up in 2019 during the wave of protests sweeping Iran at that time. 

Since the latest outbreak of unrest, the account has posted thousands of videos captured by protesters. One of @1500tasvir’s contributors warned that the regime’s limiting of mobile internet services could undermine the protests.




Thousands took to the streets in violent protests in the city of Tehran. (AFP)

“When you see other people feel the same way, you get braver. You are more enthusiastic to do something about it. When the internet is cut off, you feel alone,” the contributor said.

In response to the regime’s internet shutdowns, Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, pledged Washington would “make sure the Iranian people are not kept isolated and in the dark.” 

On Sept. 23, the US Treasury issued Iran General License D-2, adjusting sanctions rules to allow technology companies to offer the Iranian people more options for secure, outside platforms and services to help counter the regime’s narrative.

Unable to completely snuff out the spread of information online, the regime has instead resorted to its time-tested strategy of detaining social media users whose material gains widespread traction. 

According to state news agency IRNA, Hossein Mahini, a well-known football player, has been arrested “by the order of the judicial authorities for supporting and encouraging riots on his social media page.” 




Nasibe Samsaei, an Iranian woman living in Turkey, cutting off her ponytail during a protest outside the Iranian consulate in Istanbul on September 21, 2022. (AFP)

Another high-profile detainee is Shervin Hajipour, a popular singer who composed a piece using people’s tweets on Amini’s death and the protests. He was reportedly taken into custody last week after his song reached 40 million views on Instagram. 

Although authorities did not immediately confirm Hajipour’s arrest, Mohsen Mansouri, Tehran’s provincial governor, vowed to “take measures against celebrities who contributed to fueling the protests.”

To get around the internet shutdown, some activists have now resorted to distributing flyers to advertise the time and place of planned protests, indicating the regime has failed to quell the unrest.

“They’re yet to have a way of controlling the narrative,” Azizi told Arab News. “The vast majority of Iranians can now see the brutality of this corrupt regime clearly. There have even been letters of solidarity with the protesters from Shiite seminary students in Qom and Mashhad.

“Internationally, thousands have come out in support of the protesters. Even those who usually defend this regime in the Western media are now silent.”

 


As crypto collapses in US, is Middle East going through digital renaissance?

Updated 01 December 2022

As crypto collapses in US, is Middle East going through digital renaissance?

  • NFT startups in region seem to think so

DUBAI: OasisX, the nascent curated multichain non-fungible token marketplace, which aims to drive adoption of NFTs in the Middle East and North Africa region is embracing Web3 in several ways integrating NFTs, blockchain, and cryptocurrencies within its platform.

Jimi Ibrahim, one of the co-founders of the company, who has described the new iteration of the internet as a digital renaissance, said: “Web3 has four pillars: Blockchain as a secure infrastructure, tokens like NFTs for proof of ownership and provenance, cryptocurrencies for store of value and transactions, and the metaverse, which is a combination of augmented reality and virtual reality.”

The adoption of Web3, however, has witnessed a slowdown as cryptocurrency and NFT scams have become rampant in markets such as the US. Despite the promise of a more secure internet, cryptocurrencies can be used and abused for fraudulent activities, as evidenced by the recent FTX scandal.

Founded by Sam Bankman-Fried in 2019, FTX is a cryptocurrency exchange, that rose to popularity thanks to celebrity endorsements and an aggressive marketing strategy.

In November, the crypto news site CoinDesk published the balance sheet of Alameda Research, a crypto investing firm also owned by Bankman-Fried, showing that Alameda held a large amount of a digital currency created by FTX called FTT.

“While there is nothing per se untoward or wrong about that, it shows Bankman-Fried’s trading giant Alameda rests on a foundation largely made up of a coin that a sister company invented, not an independent asset like a fiat currency or another crypto,” the article said.

However, if the value of the FTT were to drop, Alameda would essentially be at risk of insolvency.

The article set in motion a series of legal actions against Bankman-Fried, FTX, and the celebrities who promoted the crypto exchange, resulting in one of the biggest financial scandals.

The incident has slowed down the adoption of crypto, diminished faith in the industry, and cost a lot of people a lot of money. Although Ibrahim noted that it had “hurt the industry,” he pointed out that it had acted as a purge of sorts.

He said: “Foul play has to be shed light on, and such players have to be removed from the playing field so that the environment is much more safe and secure for natural growth.” He added that, ultimately, was the future where “decentralized finance is going to change the world for the better.”

The global NFT industry alone reached a market capitalization of $41 billion by the end of 2021, according to blockchain data company Chainalysis.

The space was also growing to include non-fungible assets, Ibrahim said, which would see it extending into the real world. For example, the real estate and NFT industries have been merging with several properties being sold as NFTs.

In February, US-based real estate company Propy sold an NFT-backed property, a 2,164-square-foot house in Florida, for $653,000 with the winning bidder receiving a NFT as proof of the home’s ownership.

“This is the future we’re looking to tap into, facilitate and expedite because it only makes sense to secure everything on the blockchain,” Ibrahim added.

OasisX aims to bring a new layer of security and accessibility to the world of NFTs in the MENA region for both artists and businesses.

Ibrahim along with co-founders Najib Khanafer and Ramzi Mneimneh started working on the platform more than one year ago and officially launched it at the NFT LB event in Lebanon in September.

The event featured the work of 23 artists, half of which were sold out during the event, as well as served as a platform for panel discussions, movie screenings, and AR and VR experiences.

The company’s marketplace features only vetted artists, unlike platforms such as OpenSea, which avoids any “bogus projects,” Ibrahim said.

Anyone can create and sell NFTs on OpenSea. Since the platform does not vet artists, many fraudulent NFTs end up on it. Earlier this year, OpenSea reported that more than 80 percent of the items on the platform were plagiarized works, fake collections, and spam.

“We want to keep the art community safe and secure with the right projects,” Ibrahim added.

Available in English and Arabic, the platform currently has 250 vetted artists and aims to grow into the biggest MENA-based marketplace. It also works with galleries through a referral program where the gallery receives a royalty over the first sale of any artist that gets onboarded and vetted on the platform.

It only charges 2 percent in transaction fees — among the lowest in the industry — because “artists should make the most of the sale of their hard work,” Ibrahim said. That was also why, he added, the company would never remove royalties.

Often, the technical skills needed to create NFTs can serve as a barrier to entry for both artists and brands. The company, therefore, created LaunchX, an NFT generator powered by artificial intelligence.

Recognizing that there are some still wary of NFTs and cryptocurrencies, the company has integrated options such as paying through credit cards, to make it more accessible.

The entire process is secured through a smart contract on the blockchain. Ibrahim said it was more secure than using traditional banking, especially in countries such as Lebanon, where the banking system was a shambles leaving many unable to use credit cards.

It was almost impossible to corrupt information on the blockchain making it more secure than traditional transaction methods used in Web2, he added.

Despite resistance and reluctance, Ibrahim forecasted that Web3, and cryptocurrencies, would become the norm in the next five to 10 years with people using it just as seamlessly as they use debit and credit cards today.
 


Spotify Wrapped reveals the 2022 soundtrack to Saudi lives

Updated 01 December 2022

Spotify Wrapped reveals the 2022 soundtrack to Saudi lives

  • The annual campaign reveals the most-streamed songs, artists and podcasts in the Kingdom over the past 12 months
  • Canadian superstar The Weeknd topped the list of the most popular artists in Saudi Arabia, followed by Taylor Swift and K-Pop group BTS

DUBAI: Audio streaming service Spotify has released its annual Wrapped campaign, which includes a roundup of the most popular artists, songs, albums and podcasts streamed in each country over the past year, as well as a personalized experience for each user based on their own activity on the platform during that time.

“Wrapped is such an exciting time of the year where we celebrate the role music and podcasts play in soundtracking our lives,” said Mark Abou Jaoude, Spotify’s head of music.

“This year, once again, we saw how open Saudi listeners are to different genres of music and it was great to see local artists making huge splashes.”

Canadian superstar The Weeknd topped the list of the most-streamed artists in Saudi Arabia, followed by Taylor Swift and K-Pop group BTS. Another Canadian, Drake, was fourth, followed by veteran rapper Eminem. Billie Eilish, The Neighbourhood, Justin Bieber, Imagine Dragons and Lana Del Rey completed the top 10.

Local artists experienced a growth in listeners, Spotify said, with Abdullah Al-Farwan the most-streamed Saudi performer in the country, followed by Abdul Majeed Abdullah and Sheilat artist Badr Al-Ezzi.

Spotify reported that there has been a massive growth in the popularity of Sheilat, lyrically driven folkloric songs, in recent years. According to 2021 data from the company, 80 percent of Sheilat listeners on the platform stream the music while they are gaming. This year, the top 10 list of most-streamed Saudi artists included a higher number of Sheilat singers, including Ghareeb Al-Mukhles, Fahad bin Fasla, Abdullah Al-Mukhles, and Mohammed bin Grman, alongside popular household names such as Abdul Majeed Abdullah, Mohammed Abdu and Rashed Al-Majed.

Most-streamed Saudi artists in Saudi Arabia

Abdullah Al-Farwan

Abdul Majeed Abdullah

Badr Al-Ezzi

Ghareeb Al-Mukhles

Mohammed Abdu

Rashed Al-Majed

Khaled Abdul Rahman

Fahad Bin Fasla

Abdullah Al-Mukhles

Mohammed Bin Grman

In terms of the year’s most-popular songs, “Ya Ibn Khamash” by Mohammed Al-Najm is the most-streamed Khaleeji track in Saudi Arabia this year. Assala Nasri and Badr Al-Ezzi each have two songs in the top 10: “Henain” and “Al-Sourah” from the former, and “Kalemni” and “Zikrayat” from the latter.

Most-streamed Khaleeji songs in Saudi Arabia

“Ya Ibn Khamash” by Mohammed Al-Najm

“Kalemni” by Badr Al-Ezzi

“Henain” by Assala Nasri

“Al-Sourah” by Assala Nasri

“Ghazal Ma Yensady” by Abdul Majeed Abdallah

“Shoft El-Nejoum” by Lamiya Almalki

“Qalby Jobarny” by Yasser Abdul Wahab

“Ashofak Kil Youm” by Mohamed Abdu

“Adaaj Oyoun” by Majd Al-Raslani

“Zikrayat” by Badr Al-Ezzi

 

Most-streamed songs in Saudi Arabia

“Another Love” by Tom Odell

“As It Was” by Harry Styles

“Middle of the Night” by Elley Duhe

“Enemy” by Imagine Dragons featuring J.I.D.

“Heat Waves” by Glass Animals

“Sweater Weather” by The Neighbourhood

“After Dark” by Mr. Kitty

“Close Eyes” by DVRST

“Save Your Tears” by The Weeknd

“Industry Baby” by Lil Nas X featuring Jack Harlow

A number of educational, motivational and cultural podcasts also proved very popular with Spotify listeners in Saudi Arabia this year, including “Kanabet El-Sebt,” “Finjan” and “Podcast Tanafuss.”

Most popular podcasts in Saudi Arabia:

Kanabet El-Sebt

Finjan

Podcast Tanafuss

Abajoura

Sa7eb

E7tiyal

Al-Salfah

Jinayah

Sokrat

Areeka

Spotify users can access their personalized Wrapped experience on the platform’s mobile app now.
 


Leading media outlets urge US to end prosecution of Julian Assange

Updated 29 November 2022

Leading media outlets urge US to end prosecution of Julian Assange

  • Guardian, NYT, Le Monde, El País and Der Spiegel editors and publishers said the indictment threatens freedom of the press.

WASHINGTON: The United States should end its prosecution of Julian Assange, leading media outlets from the United States and Europe that had collaborated with the WikiLeaks founder said on Monday, citing press freedom concerns.
“This indictment sets a dangerous precedent, and threatens to undermine America’s First Amendment and the freedom of the press,” editors and publishers of the Guardian, the New York Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and El País said in an open letter.
Assange is wanted by US authorities on 18 counts, including a spying charge, related to WikiLeaks’ release of confidential US military records and diplomatic cables. His supporters say he is an anti-establishment hero who has been victimized because he exposed US wrongdoing, including in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Monday marked 12 years since those media outlets collaborated to release excerpts from over 250,000 documents obtained by Assange in the so-called “Cablegate” leak.
The material was leaked to WikiLeaks by the then-American soldier Chelsea Manning and revealed the inner workings of US diplomacy around the globe. The documents exposed “corruption, diplomatic scandals, and spy affairs on an international scale,” the letter said.
In August, a group of journalists and lawyers sued the CIA and its former director, Mike Pompeo, over allegations the intelligence agency spied on them when they visited Assange during his stay in Ecuador’s embassy in London.
Assange spent seven years in the embassy before being dragged out and jailed in 2019 for breaching bail conditions. He has remained in prison in London while his extradition case is decided. If extradited to the United States, he faces a sentence of up to 175 years in an American maximum security prison.
His legal team has appealed to the High Court in London to block his extradition in a legal battle that has dragged on for more than a decade.
“Publishing is not a crime,” the media outlets said in their letter on Monday.


Fox News reporter deletes inaccurate video after being challenged by Arab News reporter on TikTok

Updated 29 November 2022

Fox News reporter deletes inaccurate video after being challenged by Arab News reporter on TikTok

  • American sports reporter Jenny Taft said, ‘I just had to go through a special gate in Qatar for ladies only. Um, I don’t feel that special,” while pulling a sarcastic and smug face
  • Lama Alhamawi explained that gender-segregated gates reflect respect for personal boundaries, and that journalists have a responsibility not to spread misinformation or biased rhetoric

LONDON: A Fox Sports reporter whose post on TikTok poked fun at gender-segregated entrances and security-searches at World Cup venues in Qatar deleted her video after being challenged by an Arab News reporter on Monday.

“I just had to go through a special gate in Qatar for ladies only. Um, I don’t feel that special,” Jenny Taft of Fox Sports said in the video while pulling a sarcastic and smug face.

Arab News reporter Lama Alhamawi took the opportunity to explain to Taft the reason for this and promptly put the American reporter firmly in her place.

“As a fellow reporter, as a fellow journalist that’s years younger than you, that’s traveled to different countries covering various topics around the world, I’m going to give you some advice,” Alhamawi said.

“As journalists, we have a responsibility to uphold. We have a responsibility to do our due diligence to fully understand and investigate a topic before spreading any information, misinformation or biased rhetoric, as you did in this video.

“Now, let’s talk about the special gate you talked about … It’s a matter of one word that perfectly explains the special gate: respect. It’s a matter of respecting someone’s boundaries, their beliefs, their religious beliefs. A woman does not want to be searched by men, a man does not want to be searched by a woman.

“It’s a matter of respecting someone’s religious beliefs and boundaries and making them feel comfortable as they’re entering this country. Now, you hinted at the idea that it was based on discrimination or sexism. But it’s far from that: It’s a level of respect. The best word to describe it is respect.

Alhamawi told Taft it is about providing a level of respect and not aimed at being discriminatory. 

“Now, judging by the way you conducted your video and executed it, that’s a word that’s foreign to you and something that you maybe don’t quite understand.”

Alhamawi garnered praise and support for calling out the veteran sports journalist.

“Absolutely spot on! I’m sick of seeing ignorant people judge,” one user wrote.

“Thank you Lama, for shedding light on this and for replying to it the best way possible,” said another.

Someone else wrote: “Beautifully said. Thank you for educating everyone with such grace.”

Following Alhamawai’s video and the barrage of supportive comments it attracted, Taft deleted her video.


Former Shahid exec launches regional production company The Yard Films

Updated 29 November 2022

Former Shahid exec launches regional production company The Yard Films

  • Jakob Mejlhede Andersen co-founded the business, which will be based in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with former Shine International CEO Camilla Hammer
  • The executive team also includes Phil Rostom, a 15-year veteran of the industry in the Middle East and North Africa

DUBAI: Jakob Mejlhede Andersen, former chief content officer of MBC’s streaming platform Shahid, has teamed up with former Shine International CEO Camilla Hammer to launch The Yard Films, a regional production and development company.

The executive team behind the business, which will be based in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, also includes Phil Rostom, an industry veteran who has worked across the Middle East and North Africa for more than 15 years.

The founders said the new company will develop and produce original scripted and non-scripted content for local and international markets, targeted in particular at millennial and Gen Z audiences.

Andersen, who was involved in the production of more than 200 Nordic and Arabic scripted and non-scripted projects during his tenures at Shahid and Stockholm-based streaming service Viaplay, said: “It’s our ambition to produce and deliver groundbreaking content for the buoyant Arabic streaming market.”

“We aim to work in partnerships with the excellent local creative scene across the entire MENA region.”

Hammer said that the company’s team believes “in partnerships within the region and internationally.”

She added: “There is a wealth of stories across the Middle East that have a strong interest not only from local but also international platforms.”

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