DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran has cut off internet access to the outside world as angry protesters gathered after a tower collapsed in Iran that killed at least 36 people, officials said on Tuesday. experts as outrage and grief continued to grow in the country.
The disruption has plunged the southwestern province into digital isolation, making it difficult for journalists to authenticate events on the ground and for activists to share images and organize protests.
It’s a tactic the Iranian government has repeatedly employed during times of unrest, rights activists say, in a country where radio and TV stations are already state-controlled and journalists are under threat of arrest.
Internet interference in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan began in early May, weeks before the fatal collapse, said Amir Rashidi, a researcher at the Miaan Group, which focuses on digital security.
The province, home to an ethnic Arab population that has long complained of discrimination, has been a flashpoint in protests over the sinking economy and soaring prices of basic foodstuffs.
Disturbance then escalated in the area after the Metropol building collapsed last week, according to data shared by the Miaan Group.
The disaster sparked widespread anger in Abadan, where residents alleging government negligence gathered at the site of the collapse every night to shout slogans against the Islamic Republic. Videos of the protests have circulated widely online, some showing officers beating and firing tear gas at protesters.
The images matched known features in Abadan, some 660 km southwest of the capital, Tehran. The number of casualties and arrests remains uncertain.
In response to the protests, Iranian authorities have sometimes shut down the internet completely and other times have allowed only tightly controlled use of a national intranet, the Miaan Group reported.
During the day, the authorities also appear to have restricted bandwidths to make it very difficult to share large files, such as videos, without leaving Abadan completely, said Mahsa Alimardani, senior researcher at Article 19, an international organization that fights against censorship.
Last Friday, as massive crowds took to the streets to chant against top officials, a kind of digital barricade stood between Iran and the world, the data shows. Only certain government-approved domestic websites could serve content, but foreign-based websites could not. “There’s been a pattern we’ve seen when it’s dark where Google isn’t working but the Supreme Leader’s website is working fine,” Rashidi said. Iran’s mission to the UN did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Meanwhile, rescuers pulled another body from the rubble on Tuesday, bringing the death toll to 34, amid fears more people could be trapped in the ruins. Five of the victims were school-aged children, the official IRNA news agency reported. Another 37 people were injured in the collapse, two of whom remain in hospital.
Officials blamed the building’s structural failure on shoddy building practices, lax regulations and entrenched corruption, raising questions about the safety of similar towers in the earthquake-prone country. Authorities said they had evacuated residents from buildings near the disaster site, fearing structural damage.