Iran’s Internet & Communication Censorship

Introduction

New communication technologies are surely one of the biggest threats for authoritarian regimes. With the emergence of Internet and satellite television for the first time people have the chance to become protagonist of the communication process, to participate directly to the “res publica”, to interact, to see places far away without travelling, to know different ideas and ways of life.

In fact communication technologies have created a new public sphere that is not specifically in a geographical area, but it is in the ether or in a bit, in the space of flows, as Manuel Castells points out in his work, and for this reason it is difficult to localize and to censor. They have also empowered people that can virtually spread their ideas all around the globe and have access to a limitless information and data. For this reason authoritarian regimes consider new communication technologies very dangerous for the maintenance of their power and for the survival of the principles on which that power is based.


However, now more than ever control has become a very hard task due to the nature of new communication technologies that are spreading all around the globe. How can autocrats control the huge amount of information that flows through the air and the digital system worldwide? How can they avoid that people watch satellite televisions, or have access to websites? Can they control the information revolution? It is a big challenge.

Although it seems to be impossible that they can stop this upheaval, we need to consider that authoritarian regimes will continue to exercise their power to restraint communication with strength and the more the communication technologies is developing and mushrooming, the more the control is becoming strong. They are trying to halt the information revolution with a wide range of actions such as ban of importation or seize of satellite dishes, use of filters to prevent access to certain websites and Internet service providers that watch their customers’ users very closely.

Censorship on the content of information and entertainment is ferocious with the use of extreme measures such as arrests and tortures that sometimes also end with the capital death. But are these actions effective? It seems that these old methods of restraint are no more successful in the new scenario. “New communication technologies have emerged that undermine the ability of communication to be controlled in a traditionally hierarchical manner” (McChesney R., in Bailie and Winseck, p.57).

The control on communication is a temptation and a very hard task even for democratic systems such as in US. The human rights group Freedom House pointed out in a report – Censor Dot Gov: The Internet and Press freedom – that “the US government unsuccessfully tried to control access to certain Internet sites with the Communications Decency Act”. For authoritarian regimes, control is a battle against “evil”, a battle that nowadays in a country as Iran state and religious apparatus is fighting with all the arms. Will these arms be powerful enough to suppress the information revolution?

Control: a very difficult task

The main factor that makes very hard to control the information revolution lies in the nature itself of new communication technologies that lead to the emergence of transnational media. Transnational media literally mean media across national boundaries. This characteristic is surely hostile to authoritarian regimes that are close, rigid and static. Transnational media are the vehicle of worldwide ideas, different ideas, values, norms, ethics and way of life that flow without barriers or constraints thanks to the new technologies. Moreover, a tool as Internet offers many possibilities to avoid controls. People know how to surround the state control on communication and they do.

“The transnational media tend to undermine the censorship. Print publications are still relatively easy to censor using established procedures and institutions, but exerting control over satellite broadcasts is considerably less direct and less effective. Censorship over the Internet is more difficult still, and perhaps the easiest to circumvent. […] Although governments can and do use available technology to block access to certain Internet sites, in doing so they are playing a game of catch-up. The contents of web pages can be faxed or electronically mailed to a censoring country from accounts outside its borders. Those pages can be sent anonymously, encrypted, or both, thus obscuring both the web pages’ origin and content. Web pages can be located at a swiftly changing series of locations, requiring studious effort for governments to stay one step ahead of their publics. Rapid advances in the ability to convey pictures and audio over the worldwide web mean that not merely text but live, narrated video can be transferred. Video and cassette tapes, as well as diskettes, all of which can convey a wealth of information, can be smuggled in easily. One Arab editor said privately in the spring of 1998, the censors are losing heart, and that is surely the case.” (Alterman, 1998, p. 47-48)

Internet, in particular, has got in itself huge possibilities for evading controls on the flow of information as it is perfectly explained on “The Internet in the Mideast and North Africa: Free expression and censorship”, a report of Human Rights Watch: “In countries where there is no local ISP, persons can, for the price of an international call, dial service providers in other countries. If a web site is blocked, its sponsors or fans can change its address or “mirror” the same content at other World Wide Web sites. Local users can view websites that are blocked by accessing them via free “anti-censorship proxy (ACP) servers”. They can also have persons who enjoy access to content that is blocked locally email it to them as attached files. Wary e-mail correspondents can foil surveillance by using pseudonymous e-mail accounts and encryption, or by routing messages through a Web-based re-mailing service that “anonymizes” them by stripping information that identifies the sender”.

Therefore, in countries where there is no freedom in communication the access to satellite and Internet is difficult, but not impossible. This access, even difficult, has started a process that is unavoidable and unstoppable. It is as it has made a rip in an iron curtain. At the very beginning it was an invisible hole that is becoming bigger and bigger.

The new media are changing how we think and our perception of the world. This evolution is very deep and takes its roots in the very close relationship between media and men, as Marshall McLuhan pointed out in The Medium is the Massage. Medium is the extension of our body and our senses; satellite television, through the sense of the sight and the ear, allows people to see other places far away and things that otherwise they could never see. “Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. This extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act – the way we perceive the world. When these ratios change, men change”. (McLuhan, p. 41)

Television seems to be a very strong extension because not only one but more senses are involved in the process. “In television there occur an extension of the sense of active, exploratory touch which involves all the senses simultaneously, rather that of the sight alone. You have to be ‘with’ it”. (McLuhan, p. 125) The consequences are unpredictable, but the changes on individuals and society are inevitable. “The spread of new means of communications, such as the fax machine, the cellular phone, the satellite dish, and finally the Internet will crack open the Arab authoritarian order. The intellectual genealogy of these arguments at least in terms of the communication aspect can be traced to Marshall McLuhan’s medium theory that argues that changes in the means of communication have an impact on the trajectory of social evolution and social change”. (Fandy, p.380)

People are changing even in close and constrained societies as it is the Iranian society. Communities are re-imagining themselves. Borrowing the Imagined community concept proposed by the anthropologist Benedict Anderson, it is possible to hypothesize that even in countries under a dictatorial regime people that have the chance to access to the new media and assume information from outside start considering other points of view, a different way of life, a new future. “For Benedict Anderson, the new information technologies (just like the older one of print) are reshaping the “imagination” of communities and their world-views and moral foundations”. (Hudson, 366) For the Iranian regime this is the worst thing that could happen in the country. How long they can contain this process? And until when do people identify themselves in a nation under that regime?

Iran, a double-lived country

“Comparative analysis of global media development considers the Middle Eastern media system the most closed and controlled in the world. Without any doubt, information control and censorship are severe in the Middle East”. (Hafez, p. 4)

Iran is a country with a very high proportion of under 18s in its population. According to a Unicef survey on the State of the World’s children, in Iran the population under 18s is 46.2 per cent of the total population. (Sakr, p. 193) The young Iranians like to do the same things that all the young people like to do. The difference is that they are not allowed to do them and for this reason they must be very careful. They have restrictions, codes of behavior, and a moral law that they have to respect. “In its annual survey, Freedom House, a human rights watchdog, based in New York, says that the state continues to maintain control through terror: arbitrary detention, torture, disappearance, summary trial and execution are commonplace” (The Economist, p.8)

However, it seems that the fear of punishment is not stopping the thirsty of information and entertainment among the young Iranians. “All manner of things go on behind closed doors. There, the young do what they do in other countries: they play pop music, western as well as local, they dance with members of the opposite sex (strictly taboo), they log on to the Internet, confer by e-mail and mobile phone, tune in to forbidden satellite television and watch illegal videos (almost everything, including porn, is available)”. (The Economist, p.8) Therefore, youngster in Iran is no so different from youngster of other countries. There is evidence that they like movies, they like music, they like watching football. “Reports from Iran […] focused on the Nintendo games, rap and heavy-metal music aficionados, and the fashionable male peacocks of Tehran youth in their Levis, checked shirts, and trainers. […] Yet the shops are filled with the latest European modes, exotic, colorful materials for home dressmaking are plentiful, and cosmetics and perfumery are widely available”. (Sreberny and Mohammadi, p. 187)

It is photography of a country that lives a double live and that is becoming more and more sensitive to the new communication technologies. This change is undermining the regime at the root. In an interview at the BBC, published on the website, Ali Mohammadi of Nottingham Trent University, author of many studies about International communication and particularly about communication in Middle East, argues that “the information revolution is bypassing traditionalists. If the Internet provides masses of various information channels to the young people, then they won’t have to go to the traditional religious leaders to seek advice”. (BBC) This was the main concern of ayatollahs in Middle East. This is what is happening.


Iran actions, censorship

The fear of Iran’s conservative religious leaders is materializing with the spread of satellite television and Internet. “About satellite programs being beamed in to Teheran, an official of the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance says: ‘These programs, prepared by international imperialism, are part of an extensive plot to wipe out our religious and sacred values’. With Dynasty, Donahue, Dinky Dog, and The Simpsons being beamed in courtesy of Star TV to compete with what Iranian skeptics call the man on the balcony (the late revolutionary leader ayatollah Khomeini delivering interminable speeches), it is hardly surprising that the Iranian state believes ‘the satellite is exactly against the honorable Prophet’ and is trying to ban the import, manufacture, and use of satellite dishes”. (Barber, p. 207).

The controls are becoming more and more rigid than in the past. The reason is because communication technologies are spreading so rapidly and with an unexpected intensity than hitherto are challenging authoritarian regimes. Last autumn, Iran’s Bassij Militia seized about 2,000 small direct-to-home type television dishes that could be used to receive TV transmission from Western broadcasters. “The people who were building the dishes either have been arrested or are being sought by police in Tehran. The Iranian government bans the use of direct-to-home TV dishes, but about three millions households still use hidden dishes to receive TV signals, according to the France Presse Agency. It said that in recent years Iranian police have seized about 70,000 dishes”. (Covault, p.33) The attempts of the Iranian regime to stop the expansion of satellite television are infinite. Iran banned the importation of satellite dishes (Amin in Sinclair, p.122). That ban still exists.

Controlling Internet is even more complicated. It seems that officially there are no restrictions in using Internet in Iran. However, the restrictions are at the source. “Some Internet Service Providers have imposed their own restrictions to avoid government scrutiny, although none are required officially”. (Johari, p.81) “Some Iranian Internet Service Providers use filters to prevent access to pornographic and politically sensitive sites”. (Moore, in Johari, p.81) “And others, such as Shahid Chamran, not only have filters but watch their customers’ uses very closely”. (Bahremand, in Johari, p.81)

Talking about Internet, it is also important to remember what happened when police shut down several hundred Internet points. The official reason was the concerns about the state telecommunications monopoly that was losing business due to the emergence of private companies. However, it was not only an economic matter. In fact it was an action to preserve Internet business as a state monopoly on which it is easier to exercise control. The news was reported by Guy Dinmore on Financial Times: “Police in Tehran have shut down several hundred internet cafes over the past week in a crackdown believed to be driven by concerns of the state telecommunications monopoly that it is losing business to the newly emerging private sector. Hambastegi, a pro-reform newspaper, reported yesterday that the police Department to Supervise Public Places had closed over 400 Internet cafes on the grounds that they had no permits, although no such permits yet exist. Proprietors confirmed the figures, saying they believe that Tehran had over 1,500 such cafes, many just small shops with one computer. Cybercafes, a favourite meeting place for young people in Tehran, have developed a thriving business over the past year, mainly in providing cheap long-distance telephone calls over the Internet to relatives abroad”.

Another way to discourage Internet access has been revealed by a former student at the faculty of Medicine in Bari, in Southern Italy. He accepted to be interviewed but he asked to remain anonymous. He comes from Tabriz and has been living in Italy for 15 years. He has married an Italian. Almost every year he goes back to Iran where his father and his sisters live. “When I go to Iran and I need to use Internet, it is always so difficult to have the connection. First of all, it is important to know that officially Internet access in Iran is possible only through a State agency or the universities. I tried several times to have access and I did, but after a while my computer was bombarded by viruses, so all the time it was impossible surfing on the Web”.

Millions of Internet users

All those measures are not strength enough to discourage the Internet access in Iran. The numbers are more explicative than anything else even if it is very difficult to obtain precise statistics in this field. However, a report indicated that at that time the Internet users were 418,000 and it was predicted that there would have been 1,326,000 with an increase of 317% (Johari). The government itself has been communicating the number of the information revolution. The International Conference on Satellite and Internet Communications has been held in Tehran. President Mohammad Khatami sent a representative, the deputy telecommunication minister Nasrollah Jahangard that said that Iran had some 3.5 million and some 3.5 million irregular Internet users, as it has been reported on Payvand, an Iranian website. It means seven millions Internet users and the number is growing even faster than in the past. How can they stop this silent revolution that is fighting in the ether and in the bits?

Conclusion

There is evidence that it is impossible to stop the information revolution. All the attempts that regimes will do are doomed to failure. As it has been examined, the main factor that makes very hard any control lies in the nature itself of new communication technology that does not permit to exercise an effective control as it was and it is for the print, for instance. The new media are transnational, they cannot be constrained in boundaries, and they cannot be easily localized. They are in the ether and in the bits and have the extraordinary characteristic to break every physical barrier. It is very hard to control a huge amount of information that flows all around the world and comes from different sources and technology as Internet offers several technical expendients to avoid controls. However, in countries governed by authoritarian leaders, the censorship is very strict; the more the new media are spreading and mushrooming, the more the controls are becoming strong.

The access to communication technologies is difficult, problematic and can also be dangerous, but it is not impossible. This access has already started a process that is unavoidable and unstoppable because technologies and the content of those technologies are changing society, even close societies as they are in countries controlled by despotic regimes. First of all, it is because media are very deeply linked to the human. As McLuhan pointed out in his work, they are an extension of our body: through the senses they change men. Thanks to Internet and satellite television people have the chance to know places, ideas, values and ways of life that otherwise could have been very difficult to know in such direct way without travelling. The new perception of the world will lead individuals, people, communities to re-imagine themselves. They will start to identify themselves in something that is very far away from values, rules and ways of life proposed and imposed by the regime in their country.

And that is why authoritarian regimes consider new communication technologies as a threat to their survival and that is why in many cases their censorship actions are stronger than hitherto. It is a battle that it is fighting with all the arms. However, even if it seems measures adopted to block and control Internet and satellite television, such as ban of importation of dishes or Internet filters, are old and inadequate and cannot stop information revolution, they can surely help authoritarian regimes to slow down the process. The way to liberalize communication in countries such as Iran seems to be very long and impervious. It concerns half part of the world.

A report made by the human rights group Freedom House showed a dramatic situation in censorship on communication. “As the World Wide Web develops at an exponential rate, governments in many countries, both developed and developing are increasingly tempted to censor online information. Only 69 of the countries studied have a completely free media and 66 countries suffer heavy government censorship”. The list is very long and Iran is only a small point on the map of the world. It is important to remember that the struggle for freedom in communication involves many other countries: Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Vietnam.

Bibliography

Books

Alterman, J. New Media New Politics? – Washington, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Anderson B. Imagined communities: reflections of the origin and spread of Nationalism, London, Verso

Bailie, M and Winseck, D. Democratizing communication? – Cresskill, New Jersey, Hampton Press

Barber, B R. Jihad vs. McWorld – New York, Ballatine Books

Castells, M. The rise of the Network society – Oxford, Blackwell Publishing

Hafez, K. Mass Media, Politics, and Society in the Middle East – Cresskill, New Jersey, Hampton Press

McLuhan M. The Medium is the Massage An inventory of effects – Corte Madera, California, Gingko Press

Sakr, N. Satellite Realms – London, New York, I.B. Tauris Publishers

Sinclair, J et al. New Patterns in Global Television, Oxford, Oxford University Press

Sreberny-Mohammadi, A and Mohammadi, A. Small Media, Big Revolution – London, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press

Journals articles

Fandy, M Information technology, trust, and social change in the Arab world in Middle East Journal, vol.54, n.3

Hudson, M A “pan-Arab virtual think tank”: enriching the Arab information environment in Middle East Journal, vol. 54, n.3

Periodical articles

Survey: The Trials of Everyday Life, London, The Economist, vol. 366, n.8307

Covault, C Iran Seizes Satellite Dishes to Thwart Western Television, New York, Aviation Week & Space Technology, vol. 159. n. 14

Johari, A Internet use in Iran: access, social, and educational issues, Washington, Educational Technology, Research and Development, vol. 50, n. 1

Newspaper article

Dinmore, G Iran Internet cafes closed in crackdown, London, Financial Times

Websites

World: Middle East Iranian Conservative Slams Internet, BBC online
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/261300.stm

Freedom House: As Internet Grows, Censorship Follows
http://www.nua.com.surveys

The Internet in the Mideast and North Africa: free expression and Censorship
http://www.hrw.org/advocacy/internet/mena/censorship.htm

Over 7 million regular, irregular Internet users in Iran
http://www.payvand.com/news/03/oct/1003.html


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.