By Niloufar Rostami
November 17, 2020
Over the past week, Iranians have taken to Twitter en masse to share their personal accounts of what happened to them during the nationwide protests of November 2019. Since Thursday, November 12, more than 100,000 people have deployed and retweeted the hashtag #Which_Aban: a reference to the calendar month in which the demonstrations took place.
Countless Iranians used the #Which_Aban hashtag to re-invoke the memories of the up to 1,500 civilians who were killed in what has been dubbed Iran’s Bloody November. Others sought to draw attention to the hundreds of other people, from doctors to student activists to homemakers, who have since been arrested, tortured and imprisoned by Iran’s security forces for the simple “crime” of having been present at the protests.
The Iranian regime has tried to intervene via its wholly state-owned media platform, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. On the evening of November 14, the IRIB’s imfamous 20:30 program aired a segment deliberately aimed at appropriating the hashtag on behalf of the government.
Presenter Ameneh Sadat Zabihpour, who has also allegedly served as a “reporter-interrogator” within Iran’s secretive detention and torture centers, tried to tell viewers that the social media campaign referred to a completely different event in Iran’s contemporary history.
Twitter users, Zabihpour erroneously claimed, had been writing not about November 2019 but about “the Shah’s visit to the United States on November 14, 1977 and his presence alongside the US Democrat president.”
In the 24 hours before the program aired, a small cluster of accounts had indeed posted about this visit using the #Which_Aban hashtag – for the first time since the trend had begun. Zabihpour also wrongly claimed the phenomenon had only surfaced online in the past 24 hours. The posts about the Shah’s tweets are therefore suspected to have been planted as part of a concerted effort to hijack the hashtag by the IRIB.
The 20:30 broadcast was interspersed with photographs of the then-Shah of Iran’s trip to the US in 1977, including the Iranian head of state alongside American dignitaries. Reading one of the related tweets aloud, Zabihpour said: “Americans, both Democrats and Republicans, are unreliable. They did not even show mercy to their servant who had traveled to the United States on November 14.”
The IRIB has every reason to try to deflect attention away from the true purpose of the #Which_Aban hashtag. It was an announcement by this very broadcaster, about a hike in gasoline prices, aired on the evening of November 15, 2019, that proved the catalyst for nationwide demonstrations that began in Tehran before spreading like wildfire across the rest of the country.
Protesters’ grievances took in not just the increase in fuel costs but the general state of the economy in Iran, itself brought about by a catalogue of government failings. Over several days, not only were plainclothes officers but the Basij, security forces and police drafted in to try to contain the unrest sing batons, tear gas, water cannons – and real bullets, with ruthless and fatal abandon.
According to Reuters, some 1,500 people were killed in the November 2019 protests. Amnesty International has so far released the names of 304 people killed that month, many of whom were children. In addition to killing and detaining its own dissatisfied citizens, the government shut down the internet across Iran for several days on end in a failed bid to prevent further gatherings.
The #Which_Aban hashtag is thought to have been prompted by an incident reported by Radio Farda on November 12 of this year. In an article about the treatment of victims’ families in the 12 months since the protests and their failed attempts to seek legal recourse for the deaths of their loved ones, the news website spoke to one woman who said she had been contacted by the Supreme Leader’s office to follow up on the death of her brother.
“They said they were from the Supreme Leader’s office and asked, did you file a complaint? I said yes. They said how was it, what was it? I said that my brother was killed in November. They said, which November? I said the Bloody November of 2019. They said, ‘OK, your case is being processed.’”
The hashtag began to gain currency an hour after the report’s publication, alongside others including #Tell_the_Detainees, #Aban_Continues and #Bloody_Aban, with the names of murdered demonstrators echoing across cyberspace.
Some of those who posted have also excoriated the IRIB for its misleading coverage on Saturday, with cinema critic Amir Pouria tweeting to Ameneh Sadat Zabihpour: “If we had not already seen your role in coining the term journalist-interrogator, and if we had not seen your work in the past, this latest item would still have been enough to discredit your performance as a disgrace to the history of journalism and the media. See the falsification of the 20:30 program about #Which_Aban.” Another Twitter user, named Ali Ramezani, wrote: “Tonight, Ameneh Sadat Zabihpour pushed the boundaries of obscenity and dishonesty one more step forward”. Others angrily accused Zabihpour and her employers of trying to “steal” the hashtag, or else insisted that despite their best efforts, “listeners will know which Aban we are talking about.”
“Those who fight against the truth are most afraid of our memory than anything else, and we do not forget Aban”, wrote Mohammad Masaed, a journalist who was arrested during the protests and was later sentenced to four years and nine months in prison.
This is not the first time that either the IRIB or Ameneh Sadat Zabihpour have tried to distort public understanding of the November 2019 protests. During the uproar last year Zabihpour traveled to Mahshahr, which on November 16 and 17 had witnessed the largest demonstrations in Iran, and produced a report that attributed the unrest to “miscreants” and “rioters” who wanted to harm local citizens. Zabihpour went on to claim that people linked to ISIS had ransacked the city, and that the demonstrations had had nothing to do with either gasoline prices or the economy.
Over the past twelve months Zabihpour, a regular reporter on 20:30, has become infamous for anchoring ill-judged and unpopular news coverage that seeks to distort the reality on the ground in Iran in favor of the regime. In 2013 she was praised for being among the country’s top journalists by then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Last year she was publicly castigated by the young labor activist Sepideh Gholian, who said that she, together with fellow trade unionist Esmail Bakhshi, had been forced to give taped confessions to Zabihpour, reading from pre-prepared statements. The pair, she said, had by this point already endured “hours of physical and mental torture” for taking part in a protest on behalf of workers of the Haft-Tappeh sugar factory.
The taped confessions were used in a pseudo-documentary, Burnt Plan, which aired on the 20:30 program and sought to criminalize the two young protesters. For her part Zabihpour denied she had met Sepideh Gholian before the program aired, writing on her own Instagram page: “I never saw you, you were in Ahvaz and I was in Tehran, but I knew all of you…I am sure whoever falls out with Ali [Khamenei] is doomed to fail.”
One year after the November protests, it falls to the ordinary citizens of Iran, not their public broadcasting service, to remind the world of the bloodshed, brutality and suffering Iranian civilians endured at the hands of security forces in 2019. To this day, scores of young people remain behind bars in Iran, charged with no other real crime save for exercising their right to free expression and dissent.