Group claims Wikipedia access restricted in Iran after coronavirus outbreak

3 Mar 2020

Image: AP/Vahid Salemi

An online advocacy group has claimed the government of Iran is blocking access to Wikipedia following unrest over its handling of Covid-19.

An activist group said Wikipedia’s Farsi-language website appears to be disrupted in Iran after a close confidant to the country’s supreme leader died of the Covid-19 strain of coronavirus.

Advocacy group NetBlocks has linked the death of Mohammad Mirmohammadi, a member of Iran’s Expediency Council, to the disruption, though Iranian officials and its state media did not immediately acknowledge it. Authorities are facing increasing criticism from the Iranian public over the outbreak, amid concerns the number of cases from the virus may be higher than currently reported.

After downplaying the coronavirus as recently as last week, Iranian authorities now say they have plans to potentially mobilise 300,000 soldiers and volunteers to confront the virus.

NetBlocks claimed that the disruption to accessing Farsi Wikipedia is nationwide, saying its technical testing suggested the online encyclopedia is being blocked by the same mechanism used to block Twitter and Facebook. Those social media websites have been banned since Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election and Green Movement protests.

Some Iranians said they have not been able to access Wikipedia’s Farsi website since Monday night (2 March). Others said they could, including through the site’s mobile-friendly pages.

Hospital worker in protective clothing at a bed with a coronavirus patient.

Iran says the virus has killed at least 66 people in the country. Image: Ali Shirband/AP

Creating a ‘halal’ internet

“The new restrictions come as Iran faces a growing crisis following the loss of senior state figures to coronavirus and a spate of criticism and misinformation have spread through social media,” NetBlocks said in its analysis.

The disruption raises fears of Iran potentially shutting off the internet entirely again, as it did for a week during economic protests last November. Iran has separately created its own so-called ‘halal’ net of government-approved websites.

Iran announced on Monday that the virus had killed at least 66 people among 1,501 confirmed cases. There are now 1,700 cases of the coronavirus across the Middle East. Of those outside Iran in the region, most cases can be linked back to the Islamic republic, which, after China, has the highest death toll from the Covid-19 illness caused by the virus.

Yet experts still worry Iran’s percentage of deaths to infections, now around 4.4pc, is much higher than other countries, suggesting the number of infections in Iran may be far greater than current figures show. Saudi Arabia and Jordan, meanwhile, announced their first cases of the virus on Monday.

– PA Media