An official decision to grant unfiltered Internet access to 100 handpicked reporters in Iran threatens to backfire, with journalists and editors blasting it as discriminatory and a transparent effort to curry media favor beyond the already extensive reach of state censors.
Some critics also complained that Internet use under the Iranian government's aegis could jeopardize their personal privacy or security, hinting at public mistrust of homegrown apps and the clerically led regime.
The governmental Working Group to Determine Instances of Criminal Content issued the call for applications from journalists for the 100 spots following a request by the press office of the Culture Ministry, the semiofficial ISNA news agency reported on April 4.
Journalists could apply by sending their name, ID number, contact information, and the name of their media organization to the Office of Press and Domestic News Agencies by April 20, the report said.
It was unclear what the criteria for approval would be.
Journalists took to Twitter to blast the invitation, adopting the hashtag #Man_nistam (#من_نیستم), or "I'm not in."
"Internet without filter is the right of everyone and not only journalists and not only 100 journalists!" tweeted reporter Yeganeh Khademi.
Journalist Sonita Sarabpour, who covers technology for Peivast Monthly, reacted similarly, saying in a tweet that "#Imnotin because access to the free flow of information is everyone's right and separating 100 people and giving them unfiltered Internet is against citizens' rights."
Sarabpour added that she feels "safer" using a so-called virtual private network (VPN) to access the Internet.
Iran has one of the world's toughest Internet censorship regimes, and many Iranians are forced to use anti-filtering tools and VPNs on a daily basis to circumvent official blocks on a wide array of social media and many websites.
But senior state officials are believed to enjoy largely unrestricted Internet access. Communications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi said in January that he and some other senior officials were allowed, because of their duties, to browse the Internet freely without anti-filtering tools.
Journalists and others have been harassed, summoned, and even imprisoned over their online writings and social-media posts.
"#Imnotin because access to free Internet is everyone's right. In the name of journalists, we should not be given a right that many have been deprived of in the form of a bribe and join this unjust lawlessness," tweeted Hossein Norouzi, the editor in chief of the Iranian publication Cinema.
The offer comes amid a state push to promote homegrown messaging apps to replace the wildly popular Telegram believed to be used by around half of Iran's 82 million people.
An Iranian lawmaker said earlier this month that Telegram would soon be blocked for security reasons and replaced by a similar local service.
The announcement has met with criticism from Iranians expressing their lack of trust in domestic apps due to what they suspect is state surveillance. Many have vowed to continue using Telegram via anti-filtering tools.
Some journalists suggested they would similarly distrust unrestricted Internet provided by the state.
"We don't trust the unfiltered Internet provided by the Culture Ministry as much as we don't trust domestic messaging apps," a journalist identified as Zahra told the daily Ebtekar on April 7. "As a journalist, I'm prepared to access the Internet with an anti-filtering tool and search with difficulty for information rather than use an unfiltered Internet that would put my security at risk."
Another journalist, identified as Ali told Ebtekar, said he would not use unrestricted Internet provided by the government even if it were offered free of charge.
"I'm routinely being monitored on Twitter. Now imagine what would happen if I became active in a platform that can be fully monitored by some special bodies," he said.
Iranian satirist Hooman Jafari reacted to the offer by noting that many Iranians don't know exactly what unrestricted Internet is, as they are so used to accessing the Internet via proxy servers.