Censorship Inc.: In Skies Over Iran, a Battle for Control of Satellite TV
Shohreh, a 37-year-old Iranian nurse, sat down with her husband and parents one night in September to watch a documentary about Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, scheduled to be shown on the British Broadcasting Corp.’s BBC Persian channel.
But when the Tehran family settled on the couch with a bowl of pistachios and switched on the television, all they saw was scrambled imagery. The satellite signal was being jammed.
“We were very disappointed that we couldn’t see the film,” said Shohreh, who declined to let her last name be used.
As uprisings rolled across the Middle East this year, Iran stepped up its jamming of the BBC, Voice of America and other Western networks with Persian-language news channels. The move “is intended to prevent Iranian audiences from seeing foreign broadcasts the Iranian government finds objectionable,” five networks protested in a joint statement this month.
While the use of Western technology for Internet censorship by Middle Eastern and North African regimes has gained attention this year, satellite television has also become a potent force in the region and, in Iran, a target of censorship.
Some 45% to 60% of Iranians watch satellite TV, according to estimates from the state media company and an Iranian research center, exceeding the number believed to use the Internet. Iran so far seems to be winning a struggle to filter out unwanted TV content and broadcast its own propaganda: The country jams channels like the BBC on Western satellites even as Iran’s state media company broadcasts pro-government news on some of the same satellites, and at times has aired forced confessions of political detainees.
“Iran is having it both ways,” said a U.S. State Department official. “While they benefit from the international community’s respect for ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘freedom of the airwaves,’ they deny that same right to their own citizens, aggressively jamming Persian-language broadcasts from other countries.”
The head of Iran’s state media company last year admitted using such tactics, according to Iranian state media reports. “We send jams” to the satellites, the reports quoted the executive as saying in a spring 2010 speech. Requests for comment sent to Iran’s United Nations mission went unanswered, as did questions emailed to the public-relations office of the state media company, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, or IRIB.