Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
In a recent speech on internet freedom, United States secretary of state Hillary Clinton called “online organising” a “critical tool for advancing democracy” in Iran. However, this tool will not be enough on its own as long as the majority of Iranians do not have access to it and instead are fed an alternative reality professionally crafted by the state broadcaster.
The German sociologist Max Weber once defined the state as an entity that enjoys a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Today in Iran, the state also enjoys a near monopoly on the use of communication and information.
For the sizeable segment of Iran’s population who do not have access to satellite television and the internet, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, has created an alternative reality populated by three archetypes: the Islamic nation of Iran, the Great Satan (America), and the few enemies of the Islamic nation inside Iran who take their orders from the Great Satan. This caricature would have been an amusing farce were it not for the oppressive machine that it helps nurture and maintain. The regime’s broadcasting arm has in recent years provided a narrative for domestic and foreign consumption that is as remote from reality as it is effective in misleading domestic and foreign audiences.
However, the monopoly was not always as complete as it is today. The liberal stance of former president Mohammad Khatami towards the media after he became president in 1997 created a flowering of media freedoms that lasted several years. But press freedoms were already coming under vicious attack during Khatami’s presidency. After President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, information and communications were brought under the near complete control of the state. Tens of newspapers were closed, satellite TV was jammed, and extensive internet filtering was put in place.
The control of information has become near complete in recent months, but unlike the all-seeing state of 1984, the Islamic Republic achieves this level of control not by eavesdropping on pretty much everyone, but by creating a near monopoly on dissemination of information, especially to the section of the audience that is less educated, poor, older, and more conservative.
At times, as in the recent post-election uprising, the regime may even resort to shutting down all means of communication and information gathering in order to maintain its monopoly. Satellite TV, text messaging, internet, and even mobile phones are either shut down or slowed to a crawl in order to prop up the IRIB alternative reality.
This presents an image of an Iran where the election was fairly won, where people are free to express themselves, where the economic picture is rosier than ever, and where protesters since the elections are rabble-rousing hooligans who receive their orders from the Great Satan.
The only thing that prevents the alternative reality from being exposed is the regime’s monopoly on news and information inside Iran. As long as this monopoly continues, sizeable swathes of the population will remain within the alternative reality. Consequently, the emperor will get to keep his clothes.
If any group or government hopes to penetrate this monopoly, it needs to provide a medium that is accessible to the still large provincial and conservative underclass. This underclass, of which the Basij militia and their families are also members, are fed and clothed by the government and transported to government rallies when needed.
Demonstrations on December 30, 2009, during which this subsection of the population was brought onto the streets of Tehran by bus from surrounding provinces, provide a good case in point. Sandwiches, cake, and orange juice were offered to keep them happy during the state-orchestrated demonstrations.
It is important that any change in Iran, if it does occur, does not leave this poor, less educated, and religious underclass dissatisfied. Recent experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan show that administration or regime change can lead disgruntled fundamentalist groups to take their revenge on their own compatriots, mostly through terrorism.
A number of pundits have taken to calling the uprising the “Twitter Revolution”. Ultimately, Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube are great tools for getting news out of the country, but they are useless for getting news and information back into Iran.
So, while Iran is in crisis, the airwaves inside Iran show no sign of it. If the alternative reality that covers the Basij and other regime loyalists is pierced, their confidence in terrorising the people would also decrease. This can be accomplished by creating or reinforcing media that would be universally accessible, that is, accessible to a large majority of Iranians, and that could be used to break IRIB’s monopoly on broadcasts inside Iran.
According to some domestic sources only ten per cent of Iranians have access to the internet; the most optimistic guess puts the figure at 35 per cent. Certainly, only two per cent of the population have access to high-speed internet.
According to independent analysts the Open Net Initiative, the internet censorship system in Iran is one of the most comprehensive and sophisticated in the world. On November 15, 2009 IRIB deputy director Ali Darabi said that only 40 per cent of Iranians have access to satellite TV. Yahya R Kamalipour, professor of mass communication at Purdue University in the US, put the penetration rate between 20 per cent and 30 per cent. It is likely that urban areas display far higher rates of satellite dish ownership than rural districts. Mobile phone penetration was put at 54 per cent in 2008.
The challenge of reaching the regime loyalists is better understood in a historical context. I took part in the demonstrations that overthrew the Shah as a young teenager. Back in 1978, we would huddle around the radio, and listen to the BBC Persian Service and even Radio Moscow. It was radio but the news was reliable and constant. More importantly, it was universal; even a villager in the most remote parts of Iran could tune in and find out about Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s latest sermon from exile in Neauphle-le-Château, France.
What was later termed the “cassette caravan”, the flow of tapes from Khomeini’s headquarters, kept the revolutionary leadership in touch with the masses. The Shah’s regime was completely incapable of stopping this low tech stream of news and information.
Today, news and information are immensely more complex and more visual, but they are also more easily interrupted or shut down by the Iranian government. The Savak (the Shah’s feared intelligence agency) was hardly able to interrupt the flow of news because it was disseminated in a low tech and universally accessible fashion.
Today, the Islamic Republic easily jams all foreign news channels and filters as many news websites as it deems fit. I was in Tehran during the June protests after the disputed presidential election. My friends and family were scrambling to get some news from foreign sources, but nothing relevant could be picked up on satellite TV. All channels were jammed by the authorities.
Technology has captured people’s attention as a promising tool to make change in Iran. The US senate has authorised up to 50 million US dollars to help Iranians evade internet censorship. However, what is now essential is to provide a universally accessible medium to Iranians that would not be susceptible to complete disruption or censorship by the regime.
The opposition groups need to move beyond preaching to the converted and target those who have seen nothing but the propaganda of the Islamic regime. If the regime is willing to shut down the internet, cellphones, text messaging and satellite TV at any moment, as it has frequently done since the elections, high-tech will fail again.
Today, Iran needs a medium that is universally accessible and unequivocally beyond the reach of the ruling regime. Getting back to basics could be one solution. The most capable medium is still short-wave radio, a low-tech, universally accessible, and hard to jam medium that has often been used to overcome censorship. The experience of stations like Radio Free Europe during the 1980s and many other instances show that the Iranian people would benefit if the lessons of the past are heeded.
Babak Shahrvandi is the pseudonym of an Iranian PhD candidate in political science based in San Francisco.
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