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Iran's Media Could Make It Happen, If We Let It

  • Abbas Djavadi

An opposition supporter at an Internet cafe in the city of Hamadan (file photo)

An opposition supporter at an Internet cafe in the city of Hamadan (file photo)

Speaking at a conference of Islamic countries' national radio and TV networks, Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad recently said that the media are the main tool Western powers use to overthrow other governments. "Nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons are just a distraction. Today, the enemy's main weaponry is the media," he said.

Ahmadinejad is right in his recognition of the media's crucial role. The heavily manipulated Iranian presidential election of June 12, in which the authorities hastily declared him the winner, could not have sparked massive nationwide protests without information and communication between those millions of people who felt that their votes had gone astray.

But Ahmadinejad's fellow Iranian citizens will have a hard time comprehending the wisdom of blaming Western media for reporting about an election that was intended to whitewash the regime, but which ultimately shattered its legitimacy because information about the manipulation of the vote could not be suppressed as it used to be in the "good old times." Now Ahmadinejad and his main mentor, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, primarily rely on rule by force -- that of the Revolutionary Guards and Basij.

It is true that for years the Tehran regime has been jamming and blocking U.S.- or U.K.-funded radio and TV stations such as Radio Farda, Voice of America, and the BBC, and their websites. Filtering of the Internet was extended to Facebook and Twitter a few months before June 12. But how would Ahmadinejad explain the fact that well before the election, the authorities also started to ban reformist and relatively independent newspapers and to close their websites? And shortly before the election, they started disrupting the whole SMS messaging system and later almost all mobile phone systems that could enable Iranian citizens to communicate "politically dangerous" information to one another.

Start Spreading The News

A listener from the central Iranian city of Isfahan complained to me last June that Radio Farda did not immediately report a protest action they had staged in front of Isfahan University. "We stage the protest meeting during the day and sit in the evening of the same day to hear the news about it from Radio Farda and watch it on BBC Persian TV," he said. "We will win only if the news is spread and more people are drawn into the protests."

After 30 years of the Islamic republic, millions of Iranians finally dared to speak out and to go out on to the street to protest. From radio and TV to the Internet and mobile phones, all platforms of communication still available decisively helped, and still help Iranians challenge the regime.

Tehran has been quite successful in banning, jamming, blocking, and disrupting that flow of information, not to prevent "Western media infiltration," but primarily in order to minimize communication between its own citizens.
The Iranian regime cannot tolerate the free and fair flow of information. For that reason, Tehran has been quite successful in banning, jamming, blocking, and disrupting that flow of information, not to prevent "Western media infiltration," but primarily in order to minimize communication between its own citizens.

True, Ahmadinejad has been declared president, and Khamenei continues to defy the opposition, which has been swelled by a growing number of clerics and groups that have traditionally been silent or supported his unlimited rule. But ever since June, all signs indicate that the postelection protests were not a one-time outburst that could be decisively suppressed. The Iranian people have changed for good, and nothing will be as it was a year ago.

Now, for one moment, imagine a second round of massive protests nationwide and the effects they might have if, unlike five months ago, Iranians had better access to communication tools for the exchange of information. If they could freely follow international radio and TV programs, and had unimpeded use of, and access to, the Internet and mobile phone systems.

I believe we have not drawn the appropriate lessons from June's presidential election in Iran and the media's capacity to play a role in bringing about change in Iranian society and government. We are certainly not acting as though we have learned those lessons.

Recently, Reuters reported that the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors "is covertly testing technology in Iran and China that lets residents break through Internet censorship imposed by their governments." If confirmed, that could be good news.

Maybe there is no need for either military actions or tougher economic sanctions that are widely thought to be counterproductive or ineffective. Providing Iranian people with tools of better communication and information would do the job, in concert with other political and economic components.

Help the Iranians communicate and exchange information and let them handle the situation themselves.

Abbas Djavadi is associate director of broadcasting with RFE/RL in Prague. The views expressed in this commentary are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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