The filtering of a popular messaging app in Iraq is threatening to unleash a confrontation between Prime Minister Muhammad Shia’ Al-Sudani and Shiite armed groups. Outlets which feel targeted see the measure as the outcome of US pressure in liaison with the Baghdad government. Others view the ban as part and parcel of maneuvering ahead of the upcoming provincial elections later this year.
Popular platform in the crosshairs
Telegram has in past years grown to become among the most popular—and powerful—platforms in Iraq for the dissemination of commentary and news. In January, Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Saad Maan said around 16M of Iraq’s population of 43M use the Dubai-based messaging app.
In an unexpected announcement, the Iraqi Ministry of Communications on Aug. 6 moved to ban the app in governorates that fall under the authority of the federal government.
The ministry justified the measure in a press statement saying, “We would like to bring to the attention of internet users in Iraq that the ban…came at the request of higher authorities for reasons relating to national security, and to preserve the personal data of citizens which the application [Telegram] breached the safe handling of, in violation of the law.” The reference to “higher authorities” is believed to be Sudani.
Notably, the filtering does not cover the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where the app is still accessible. Users can also use virtual private networks (VPNs) to access the platform in governorates where it is blocked.
The sudden decision has sparked outrage from administrators of Telegram channels that are close to or affiliated with some Shiite armed groups. The loudest uproar has come from Sabereen News, a channel that reports political and security-related news. Apart from posting alleged leaks, the outlet has on repeated occasions been the first to report on attacks on foreign forces, including US troops. With more than 300,000 subscribers, the influential outlet has strongly indicated that it is a key target of the Sudani government’s ban. At the same time, other Telegram channels such as Fatemiyoun and Hanata Republic have also expressed outrage over the filtering.
The day after the communication ministry’s announcement, Sabereen threatened to act against the filtering. Though it has not explicitly detailed the measures it may adopt, the channel’s administrators have warned that “if the ban is not lifted within 72 hours, Iraqis will be hearing strange noises everywhere.” The latter could be a hint of possible attacks by armed groups.
Rise of Sabereen News
Citing US sanctions legislation, Facebook algorithms have in recent years restricted certain terms such as “Popular Mobilization Units” (PMU) as well as the names of prominent associates of the Iraqi umbrella force. The latter includes the late PMU deputy chief Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis. Facebook additionally routinely takes down pictures and videos of Shiite commanders such as Qais Al-Khazali, the leader of Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq, and Akram Al-Kaabi, the head of Harakat Hezbollah Al-Nujaba.
In this context, Telegram has emerged as a breathing space for Shiite armed groups. The “resistance” factions and other affiliates of Iran have chiefly relied on the platform for their media activities. The messaging app has been particularly useful to such actors as it allows users to easily establish channels—groups that anyone can join— to disseminate content in full confidentiality. This paved the way for activists from Shiite factions to come together under the umbrella of Sabereen News, which is reportedly run from within Iraq as well as Iran and Lebanon.
While the precise administrators of the popular channel are not publicly known, Amwaj.media has learned that they are a group of young men who fought in the 2014-17 war against the Islamic State group (IS). Speaking on condition of anonymity, one informed source close to the Telegram channel said the editorial team “adopts high-level security measures.” According to the source, “None of the Sabereen News’ team members ride in luxurious cars or raise their voices at people. They are simple individuals.” At the same time, he ominously added, “However, they will not forgive who attacks it [Sabereen News].”
Today, the Telegram channel rivals the official outlets of Iran-backed Shiite armed groups in its influence and reach.
Importantly, while Sabereen News is widely seen as a prominent platform for “resistance” factions, it does not appear to be an affiliate of any particular entity. The source close to the outlet told Amwaj.media, “Sabereen News does not belong to any armed or political group; it is an independent entity that defends the vulnerable.” Speaking on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the topic, the source attributed the “power” of Sabereen as stemming from “it not belonging to any side.” Dismissing claims of foreign backing, he elaborated, “Iran is not responsible for the channel and that is evident from the fact that the channel criticizes all Shiite leaders including some leaders of armed groups.”
Those who follow the channel are aware that Sabereen has long targeted activists and politicians alike. The outlet played a key role as the opposition October (Tishreen) protest movement took shape in the autumn of 2019. The anti-establishment demonstrations compelled an early end to the premiership of Adil Abdul Mahdi (2018-20), who Sabereen staunchly supported. Amid the clampdown on unrest, which reportedly left nearly 600 people dead, Sabereen was accused of incitement against activists, demonstrators, and journalists.
When the Mustafa Al-Kadhimi administration (2020-22) took office, it was not spared from attacks by Sabereen. At the same time, Shiite leaders who are widely seen as affiliated with Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah have also been targeted, indicating at least some autonomy from these two Shiite factions.
Change in tone on Sudani
Since taking office last October, Sudani has largely received support from Sabereen News. However, in the wake of the Telegram ban, the outlet within the span of a few hours turned into an archnemesis of the prime minister. It began posting negative coverage of the government along with alleged documents that accuse Communications Minister Hayam Al-Yasiri, who is close to Shiite politicians, of corruption and shortcomings. It has further focused its sniping on the head of the prime minister’s media office, Rabih Nader. Additionally, Sudani media advisors Diaa Al-Nasseri and Hashim Al-Rikabi are accused of having proposed the Telegram ban.
Sabereen’s posts in recent days also make clear that its administrators consider US Ambassador to Iraq Alina Romanowski as a key force behind the Telegram ban. In one poster circulated on the channel, Sudani and his communications minister are referred to as part of the “Nation of Romanowski,” an expression used to indicate their alleged affiliation with the US diplomat.
In the aftermath of the Telegram ban, Sabereen’s administrators have also expressed discontent with the leaders of the Shiite Coordination Framework, hinting at a sense of being let down with not being defended in public. The constellation of Iran-backed Shiite parties made Sudani’s premiership possible last autumn after a year-long clash with the rival Sadrist Movement.
Deflecting Sabereen’s accusations, an official at Sudani’s office told Amwaj.media, “There are no international pressures or personal and political disputes with any platform or side… not every government decision should be considered as a dispute or stance vis-à-vis a certain side.” The source emphasized that the filtering is solely because “the app has turned into a space for the dissemination of citizens’ [personal] data…this is harmful to the security of both citizens and the state…blocking this app is for the benefit of all.”
Importantly, the official asserted that there is no clarity on whether the ban can be lifted any time soon as Telegram “has neither responded to our demands or messages.” He continued, “It is not acceptable that channels which harm the security of Iraqis continue [operating] without any measure taken against them.” The latter appears to be a reference to the ongoing leaking of the data of Iraqis with files in state institutions by some Telegram channels which months ago launched what seems like information auctions. This has irked the government, including Communications Minister Yasiri, who is known to be an affiliate of PMU Chairman Falih Al-Fayyadh.
The ban on Telegram means that a key Iraqi Shiite wing has been broken. Media outlets established by Iran or Shiite parties in post-2003 Iraq, though plenty, have not been as influential as Sabereen News on the popular platform. It remains to be seen whether the filtering will become permanent, and if yes, whether it will create a new reality. Until then, the war of words between Sabereen and the Sudani government may very well drag on—especially ahead of the upcoming provincial elections.