Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Fighting Text Messaging

Shahram Rafiizadeh, Rooz Online:
Along with the removal of the head of Iran’s mobile telecommunications tzar, a news website close to the Iranian government announced that four individuals had been arrested in connection with sending text messages over mobile (cellphones) phones. Mobarezan website wrote that the four are agents of foreign governments and are accused of espionage. This is the second time that individuals are arrested in connection with short message service (SMS in short but also known as short text messaging in the US). The first time anybody had been arrested in this regard was during the last parliamentary elections last year. In that case, those arrested were charged with advocating the boycott of the elections, which is interpreted as a crime after the religious leaders in the country had proclaimed voting to be a citizens’s and religious duty. During the last presidential elections in May 2005 too the judiciary had warned people not to use SMSs with political content or for disrupting the elections. Since then, law enforement officials in the country have interpreted even jokes sent through text messages over cellphones to be criminal behavior, warranting arrest and punishment. But text messaging with political content, especially making fun of government officials has been rising in number and volume.

SMS is a relatively new service in Iran, which began just four years ago. The volume of SMS messages surpasses the seven million users of Internet in Iran. President Ahmadinejad too had vowed to fight those who sent unaccepted text messages, citing one example when he himself had received a message about the frequency of his baths. His campaign offices even lodged a formal complaint with the judiciary. It is reported that the government’s tellecommunications watchdog has been asked by the president to find ways to bring this communications media under control. The agency has defended the SMS services on economic grounds arguing that it derives a large income from its availability and usage by the public. READ MORE

Last year when an Iranian C130 military transport aircraft crashed, the minister of communications made references implying that mobile telephone conversation in Iran were monitored and even taped. And even though the ministry subsequently announced that it did not have the capability to tape such a large volume of communications, it also confirmed that text messages were recorded and provided to the agency.

In connection with the recent arrests, Mobarezin news website claims that those arrested had connections with and communicated through text messaging with the Israeli intelligence agency Mosad.

While the name of the senior communications official arrested has not been officially released, but it is widely believed that Mehdi Saraian is the person who is now kept in Tehran’s notorious evin prison. No official charges have been announced for the arrest but it is believed that by providing text messaging to every cell phone owner, Saraian clearly displeased those who did not wish the public to possess such a quick and effective means of communication.

While the outcome of the recent arrests in connection with SMS messaging is not clear yet, what is certain is that SMS jokes have already put some people into serious trouble.