Gov keeps eye on Web

The Iranian government has already started its crackdown on the Web. Its Revolutionary Guard recently bought technology to jam signals, a frequent tactic.

Many sites, including the BBC’s popular Farsi service, have been blocked and filtered (often using North American-made software).

In a sign of the government’s increasing media savvy, Hossein Saffar-Harandi, the country’s minister of culture and Islamic guidance, publicly endorsed blogs in February and decreed that regulation of them would now come under his purview. Furthermore, the government has employed hundreds of its own bloggers to spread pro-regime messages.

Iranian state TV announced in December plans to launch its own English-language satcaster by the end of 2006 to counter “Western propaganda against Iran.”

Iran already has an Arabic satcaster, Al-Alam, which launched in 2003 shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein in neighboring Iraq. Suspicions also abound that Your TV, a London-based Persian satcaster, is secretly funded by the Iranian administration.

Many Iranians are determined to get past the attempted curbs.

“I have at least 4,000 visitors to my Web site every day even though my site is blocked and censored heavily. The Iranian students are finding a thousand ways to get past the censors. They’re even telling me that they’re now building their own antijamming devices,” says Ali Nourizadeh, who presents a nightly one-hour show, “Window on the Fatherland,” on the privately funded Channel One.

One major absence from the attempts to control the debate is Europe.

While the BBC is well-respected in the country, its influence is limited. A 2004 Dutch parliamentary proposal pledging e15 million ($19.2 million) toward setting up an independent Iranian satcaster was vetoed by the Dutch government in November on the grounds that the move would disrupt relations with Iran.

“The EU has had no say in the media space. I am sure that if the EU had at least a 20%-30% market share of the debate and started to focus on the terrible environmental risks of nuclear energy, in six months the whole public debate in Iran would be heavily influenced by it,” says Hossein Derakhshan, the former editor of an Iranian reformist newspaper who now runs one of Iran’s most popular blogs, Hoder.com.

Whatever the outcome of the current round of negotiations — talks among all five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council on the issue are ongoing — the media blitz over the nuclear crisis is set to continue.

“I am very happy to see that instead of sending Tomahawk missiles, the Americans are using TV and radio,” Nourizadeh says. “Khomeini won his revolution with the cassette. This time it will be satellites and the Internet.”

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