Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Iran's Thought Police (Omedia)

Every once in a while I find a website online that makes me feel redundant.

A Hebrew online journal, Omedia, has recently launched an English edition and so far it looks stellar. It is chock-full of well-written, serious political analysis, media criticism and historical context. In other words, it does what I attempt to do but much, much better.

Here is a recent fantastic article about the extent of censorship and thought-repression in Iran:
The Iranian Thought Police
Nir Boms and Niv Lilian

“Ignorance is power” wrote George Orwell in his novel “1984”, in his description of the thought police, which kept “bad” ideas away from good people. Throughout history, “Big Brother’s principle has been effective in eliminating undesirable ideas by isolating them from those who would use them. With no alternative thought or faith– the only available thought or faith will triumph. Good Morning Iran.

The Security Council’s decision to impose sanctions on Iran reflects the consensus building up against Iran’s intentions, which are no longer taken as innocent. However whereas the West has only just begun shutting down access to Iran through fruitless economic sanctions, Teheran beat everyone to it, and recently finished closing down possible channels of communication with the “vile West”. This policy recently blocked the “New York Times” website, the video clip site, “YouTube”, and the free encyclopedia site “Wikipedia”, all following on Iranian thought police orders.

Iranian internet providers were also ordered to narrow the bandwidth to 128 kb/sec, to prevent internet telephone communication (VoIP) and prevent people from downloading files. Add to this other measures like removing satellite dishes, actively blocking broadcast frequencies, and arresting bloggers and Iranian opposition activists, a dismal picture is obtained of Iranian freedom of expression and freedom of thought.

These measures will even further limit the maneuverability of students and researchers, who have also been hounded of late, and of opposition activist in Iran whose voices recently began to be heard again. As if all this isn’t enough, Iran's head of the Communication Development Agency announced that text messaging would also be monitored from now on. Big Brother's eye is always open.

Praising Indoctrination

For the Israeli public, Iran is presently perceived as a strategic-militaristic threat closely connected with weapons of mass destruction. However, the subject of Iran's most powerful weapon, mass repression and the blocking of the free movement of ideas and thoughts is missing from Israeli discourse. The Iranian regime is not only working to repress Western-liberal thought but also to export the revolution, including through familiar groups such as Hizbollah. Iran's influence is evident in Iraq, Africa, Lebanon, and closer to us, in the Palestinian Authority.

Ever since the Islamic revolution of 1979, Iran has shone in propaganda, which it considers an important value. In the Iran-Iraq war, thousands of Iranian children were sent to the front with "keys to heaven" round their necks. They were sent to clear minefields and march before the soldiers to undermine enemy morale and show the Iranian people's determination. Those who died were declared martyrs and were guaranteed a place in the next world. 500,000 plastic keys were imported from Taiwan for this and many of them were used.

A new study by the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace shows that Iranian textbooks speak of the "collective sacrifice" that will bring about the desired salvation. For example, an eighth grade textbook reads "The order of Jihad will be given by order of the prophet, the Imam, or the Muslim leader, and the Muslim army will defeat the army of the proud (the American enemy and its allies) in a holy war and pave the way for free preaching, awakening, and redemption."

There is A Partner

Despite this, the Iranian people, in contrast to its government, give the impression of being less radical and malevolent. The Iranians are mostly peace-loving though trampled by a fanatic, radical, separatist, religious government. Only last week, for example, we saw a successful student protest in Teheran, which despite strict security measures, managed to convey the message that Ahmadinejad was not wanted in an institution that respects knowledge and education.

The students, who represent the vast majority of Iranians under the age of thirty, are identified with the opposition, which is working to change the regime and make it more democratic.

The Iranian people–again, as opposed to its government–also finds ways to communicate with Israel. Daily, large numbers of Iranians respond to Israeli radio broadcasts in Persian by telephone and email. A new Jewish Agency website recorded over 55,000 hits in the first month, 50% of them from Iran (before Iranian censorship also discovered this site).

In the Iranian theater, there is a routine clash between fundamentalism and liberalism, freedom and dictatorial suppression. This is a struggle for Iranian public opinion – and not just in Iran. The propaganda war continues as does the fight for public opinion in countries of the region whose citizens could be influenced one way or another. On the one hand, it would be a dangerous threat to Israel and to the stability of neighboring regimes if Hizbollah's modus operandi were successfully copied to other borders such as Egypt or Jordan. On the other hand, there a few light ray in the form of critical new voices on television and across websites in the Arab and Muslim world.

Find A Good Listener

Precisely in these dark days, when all knowledge and thought channels are being blocked by Ahmadinejad's regime, it is all the more important to reach the Iranian public. Activities like Israeli radio broadcasts in Persian and the Jewish Agency website, which are aimed directly at the Persian people must continue.

For some reason, though, these issues were missing from Defense Minister Amir Peretz's budgetary demands. We can assume he realizes that Israeli radio broadcasts in Arabic cannot even be received in Jerusalem because of the lack of transmitters, and that the budget for printer paper and ink for the Iranian radio station's old printers ran out long ago. Which is a pity.

“Every citizen can be monitored by the police 24 hours a day and influenced by official propaganda when every other communication channel is closed. This was the first time it was possible not only to enforce complete submission to the will of the State, but also to force complete agreement on each and every matter."

This Orwellian vision of "1984" is now being practiced in Iran. We must not let the Iranian thought police win. The loud, clear voice of freedom of expression, as well as our own voice, must continue to resound even in the suburbs of Teheran.

Nir Boms is vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East
Niv Lilian is deputy editor of the YNET computer and Internet channel