VOA Persian and the Electronic Curtain

Just over two decades ago, a large part of the world lived behind an Iron Curtain. The Soviet Union, in its effort to shield its citizens from outside influences, deployed a massive internal security apparatus, all available surveillance technology, and imposed severe limitations on movement, speech, press, assembly, and association. Eventually, after decades of such repression, the most evocative symbol of the Iron Curtain – the Berlin Wall – came down at the hands of free peoples on both sides of the barrier.

The Soviet leadership finally realized that cutting off its people from the world to secure total political control had eventually resulted in the intellectual, political, and economic stagnation of its society. Ultimately, the wall fell with Soviet acquiescence, and perhaps imperfect but far freer societies took root in Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union. If the Islamic Republic of Iran learns from this example, it may yet reverse its slide towards totalitarianism.

Iranians have never enjoyed free access to information during the Islamic Republic period, but the severity of Islamic Republic limits on its people’s discourse has reached unprecedented levels today – and it only threatens to get worse. In 2011 Freedom House ranking of the IRI as last in internet freedom among the 37 countries assessed is only the latest in a long record of repression of Iranian society.1

Staggered by the massive post-election protests of 2009, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s government (IRIG) has now accelerated completion of its own formidable barrier between its people and the outside world – an “electronic curtain” – no less suffocating than the Iron Curtain of the last century.2

Previewing its future intentions, last month the Islamic Republic of Iran announced its plan to develop a “Halal” internet, which if realized would essentially seal off Iranians from internet contact with the rest of the world. Seeing the vibrancy and creativity of one of the world’s most intellectually prolific cultures under such bondage is not merely a violation of international human rights standards, but represents a tragic affront to the advance of world civilization.

One primary target of the Islamic Republic’s electronic curtain has been the Voice of America Persian Service. Since 1942, Voice of America has been a credible source of news and information to audiences throughout the world, including Iran. Today, VOA Persian plays a more critical role than ever. Without diplomatic, commercial, academic, security, or touristic ties between the US and Iran, VOA Persian (and its sister broadcaster Radio Farda) have become the primary communication channels between the U.S. and Iran.

At VOA Persian, we are committed to engaging all the Iranian people with accurate, trustworthy, and comprehensive news and other programming and we remain committed to reaching our audience in Iran. Given the urgency of our mission, we are aggressively moving VOA Persian forward to realize its full potential, regardless of the obstacles before us.

We at VOA believe that the Iranian people are searching for truth, not propaganda. Where the truth is contested, PNN will offer a platform for civic discourse (perhaps at times adversarial, but always civil) from which our viewership may draw their own conclusions over the merits of contrasting positions.

In addition, the quality and scope of our programming will be upgraded substantially. Iranian viewers now have a range of viewing options to choose from, including entertainment and diverse IRIB programming. To compete, our programs and online presence must not only improve in quality, they must also become more relevant to our audience inside Iran.

Our most popular show, Parazit, has established strong audience rapport and developed an engaging style attractive to a broad Iranian audience. More quality programs focused on material relevant to our audience can build on this success. Upgraded versions of existing programs, and completely new program offerings will be rolled out this summer.

To add to the depth of our programming, we are setting up a research team to provide textured background and analysis. Finally, to bring VOA Persian into the digital age of journalism, we are establishing a social media team to connect with the sizable online audience inside Iran. Taken together, these steps and many others will lead to the fresh, relevant, and incisive programming our audience deserves.

Such broadcasts may well challenge the monopoly of information within a closed society like today’s IRI, but it bears mention that the IRIG does not object to satellite broadcasting for communication in general. In fact, the IRIG makes extensive use of satellite broadcasting itself, currently operating 48 channels to communicate in English, Turkish, Arabic, and other languages with the world.

Unfortunately, the IRI government is unwilling to allow its own people free access to satellite broadcasts from the outside world. If the IRIG is so confident in the power of its culture and ideas that it runs 48 separate television broadcast channels to promulgate them to global, regional, and domestic audiences, why is it unwilling to also allow its own population access to outside culture and ideas?

We at VOA Persian hope that the IRIG will soon realize that isolating Iran from the rest of the world will eventually lead to the same stagnation – intellectually, politically, economically, and culturally – that led to the downfall of the USSR. If this isolation ends, the world would be greatly enriched through more open communication with Iran. If it does not, the IRI will eventually succumb to the same fate as the USSR.

We at BBG and VOA call for the IRI to immediately cease the illegal practice of jamming international satellite broadcasts. Deriving benefits from global legal and technological infrastructures – most saliently in this case global communications technology – while refusing to adhere to globally agreed-upon norms of conduct – does not befit a nation purporting to act as a leader within the region or the Muslim world.

In the coming months, we at VOA, working with interagency partners in the US government, international allies, private broadcasters, and relevant NGOs, will press Iran to adhere to these international norms, or face progressively higher negative consequences.

At this time when dramatic change is sweeping the region, the Islamic Republic will come under increasing pressure to finally allow the Iranian people the freedom to engage their world. Should the IRI change course and allow such communication, we at VOA stand ready to reach the Iranian people with high quality news and information. If, however, the electronic curtain is not lowered, we at VOA will work tirelessly with advocates of free communication and expression around the world to help bring it down.

1. The IRI ranked 187th out of 199 nations in Press Freedom according to Freedom House’s 2010 report on Global Press Freedom; was designated as “Not Free” by Freedom House’s 2011 Freedom in the World report; and ranked 171st out of 179 nations in Economic Freedom according to the Heritage Foundation’s 2010 report on Global Economic Freedom.

2. Elements of this barrier include uplink jamming (jamming of satellite signals at their satellite source), downlink jamming (jamming of receiving satellite dishes at ground level), aggressive monitoring of all online communications, Internet filtering and denial of service, intimidation of bloggers and online activists, government-sponsored hacking, and other technical, legislative, judicial, and extra-judicial methods aimed at curtailing free expression and communication both within Iran and between Iranians and the outside world.

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