Controversial Exile Using Social Media To Try To Bring Down Iranian Government

Some credit him with providing a crucial information platform for Iranian protesters as they take on the Iranian regime. Tehran, however, accuses him of inciting violence and spreading fake news.

Whichever way you see it, there is no doubting that Roohollah Zam, a former journalist turned exile, has become someone for the Iranian authorities to reckon with. Making use of the encrypted safety of the messaging app Telegram and the information agency he runs from abroad, Zam takes on all members of the establishment in Iran in an effort to bring the system down.

"We haven't been linked to any political group in the country," he told RFE/RL in a January 4 telephone interview from France. "We don't spread the message of the reformists, or the conservatives, or the [Islamic Revolutionary] Guards, or [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei."

Amadnews, the Telegram channel he used to disseminate information, boasted a large following before it was suspended by the messaging service on December 31 over allegations that it had called for armed uprisings. The suspension came just three days after an antigoverment rally in Mashhad spread to other cities, and followed complaints by Iranian officials.

Zam denies allegations that he incites violence but openly admits that the channel's mission is to take down the government.

After his first channel was shut down on Telegram, which is widely used in Iran as a means of circumventing the country's tight restrictions on media, Zam and his team started a new Telegram channel called Sedaie Mardom (The Voice Of The People). Within a week, it had attracted more than 1.3 million subscribers, many of them in Iran itself.

After protests erupted around the country after the December 28 Mashhad rally, the channel posted numerous photos and videos of protesters chanting slogans against Khamenei and President Hassan Rohani.

Unverifiable images have included photos of dead and wounded men, who the channel claims were shot by forces trying to clamp down on the rallies.

The channel has also shared the times and locations of planned rallies and openly encouraged people to join the demonstrations, using various hashtags, such as "united we win."

Zam describes his approach as a "new genre" that mixes "media and political activism." He insists, however, it isn't aimed at "gaining political power or helping a political group come to power."

He says the channel's "activism" is to serve the "Iranian people's interests."

He accuses the government of "robbing the country, ignoring people's plight, and failing to improve people's living standards."

The Iranian authorities are not capable of running the country, Zam tells RFE/RL.

"Iranian people want the government gone and to give way to a new system," he says.

Zam denies various claims that he has links to Iranian intelligence services or gets funding from foreign countries.

According to Zam, Sedaie Mardom is run with a "very tight budget" by a small team -- a group of Iranian self-exiles who fled the country after facing persecution for their activism.

The team members survive on welfare payments they receive in their host countries, Zam explains.

Zam says his family in Iran has paid a heavy price for his media activity, as Iranian authorities have detained several of his relatives in an effort to pressure him to "shut down his channel and return to Iran to save his family."

Zam is the son of Mohammad Ali Zam, a cleric who served in the government in the 1980s. The cleric has condemned his son's activity.

Zam is unbowed in his efforts, however. He says he receives important information, including classified documents from multiple "reliable sources" within the Iranian government, and shares them with public. Zam claims he "verifies the information with two alternative sources" before posting them online.

Zam claims he has received documents exposing government officials' corruption and other wrongdoings and even alleged plots to place bombs near antigovernment rallies to stir fear and panic.

Iranian authorities accuse Zam's channels of "encouraging hateful content."

On December 30, Iran's Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi said that Amadnews had called for the "use of Molotov cocktails, armed uprising, and social unrest." In late December, Iran blocked Telegram.

In a Twitter message, Telegram founder Pavel Durov confirmed Jahromi's complaint and suspended Amadnews.

"A Telegram channel (Amadnews) started to instruct their subscribers to use Molotov cocktails against police and got suspended due to our 'no calls for violence' rule. Be careful -- there are lines one shouldn't cross." Durov wrote.

Telegram declined to shut down the Sedaie Mardom channel, however.

"Iranian authorities are blocking access to Telegram for the majority of Iranians after our public refusal to shut down (Sedaie Mardom) and other peacefully protesting channels," Durov tweeted.
With tens of millions of users, Telegram is the most popular messaging app in Iran, a country of some 80 million.

With end-to-end encryption and features like self-destructing messages, Telegram provides greater privacy for its users than social-media outlets like Twitter or Facebook.

Jahromi said on state media on January 3 that Iran would only unblock the app if it removed "terrorist content."

But even in cases where authorities have made moves to block such outlets, tech-savvy users in Iran have become adept at using VPNs to gain access, allowing Sedaie Mardom to still get the word out.

RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari contributed to this report.