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Social media app Telegram deletes Yemen’s Houthi-backed Al-Masirah TV

Al Masirah TV logo. Picture courtesy of FreeeTV.
Al Masirah TV logo. Picture courtesy of FreeeTV.

The social media app and website Telegram has deleted the channel used by Yemen’s Al-Masirah satellite television station, an entity thought to be affiliated with the Houthi’s, who are fighting the Saudi Arabian-backed coalition in Yemen.

The action by Telegram took place over the weekend of 16-17 April 2016, and to date the company has provided no explanation as to why the channel used by Al-Masirah – which boasted around 65,000 followers – was deleted. Any attempt to access the Al-Masirah TV channel on Telegram is met with the following notice: “Sorry, this channel is no longer accessible.”

Telegram can be used from both computers and mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets.

Unnamed directors of Al-Masirah TV, which broadcasts from Lebanon on both the Eutelsat 8 West and Russian Satellite Communications Corporation’s Express AM44 satellites, called the move by Telegram “unethical and unwise,” and said that they would seek alternative forms of communication to get their pro-Houthi message across to Al-Masirah audiences.

Over the past several months Al-Masirah Satellite Television has ceased broadcasting on NileSat satellites on a number of occasions because of alleged breach of contract. Pro-Houthi and -Iranian commentators allege that the actions by NileSat, and Telegram this past weekend, are the result of pressure on these companies by Saudi Arabian officials, though no proof to substantiate these claims has been provided to date.

Earlier this April, NileSat stopped carrying Al-Manar Satellite Television on its satellites for similar allegations of breach of contract. Al-Manar TV is funded by and affiliated with Hezbollah, and as with the case of Al-Masirah TV, its supporters and the Iranians have strongly suggested that the action was coordinated by Saudi Arabia.

For its part, NileSat has defended its actions against Al-Manar TV, accusing it of “fomenting sectarian tensions and strife,” and that these activities constitute a breach of NileSat’s conditions for carrying the Hezbollah-backed channel.

While Telegram has not revealed its reasons for deleting the Al-Masirah channel on its app, the Telegram website is clear on possible reasons for it to take action against any of its users, stating that, “While we do block terrorist (e.g. ISIS-related) bots and channels, we will not block anybody who peacefully expresses alternative opinions.”

Further, on its website Telegram asserts that it does not delete accounts at the request of governments where freedom of speech is at issue, stating that, “if criticizing the government is illegal in some country,” then Telegram will not delete an account on that government’s behalf, unless it can be proven that the user or channel is violating intellectual property rights or is distributing pornography in countries where such activity is deemed illegal.

Regardless of the cause of the Al-Masirah channel deletion from Telegram, it is the latest twist in an ongoing information contest between Saudi Arabian and Iranian proxies within the context of the regional geopolitical competition between Riyadh and Tehran. This contest involves everything from satellite jamming and legal maneuvering through to cyber attacks and targeted propaganda.

Telegram had not responded to requests for comment by the time this report was filed.

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