Yesterday morning, I experienced transnational censorship, firsthand.
While researching Iranian oil output ('vis-à-vis Asian buyers circumventing the EU embargo), I stumbled upon a Tehran Times piece, titled “Asia’s Imports of Iranian crude to regain levels prior to EU ban.” Attributed to Reuters, the article was bullish on the Islamic Republic’s export recovery, as Japan and South Korea accelerate energy purchase.
Here’s the trick. The copy that’s live on the Tehran Time’s website is conspicuously absent 325 words from the version posted at Reuters.com. (Understanding editors are often forced to "adjust" copy from news agencies like Reuters and AP, I've contacted the TT to confirm the decision making process.)
The section that’s been erased from copy at the Tehran Times begins, as follows:
Still, the recovery will not return Iran's exports to last year's levels, as buyers have to ensure they have cut shipments sufficiently to stay eligible for a waiver from the sanctions imposed by the United States. Washington has given waivers to the top four Asian buyers that come up for renewal later this year.
Even after the resumption, Japan's purchases will be about 25 percent lower than a year ago, while those by South Korea will about 20 percent less. Though India's MRPL is able to raise imports because of its new facility, it plans to cut shipments by 20 percent this year.
These are sobering statistics when you consider that Asian markets consume more than half of Iranian oil exports. Thus the deletion of the gloomier figures, and corresponding analysis. (For the record, The Tehran Times is not a “government” news outlet. Rather, it’s a private English language daily, created in 1979 to “export the ideas of the revolution.”)
As you might have guessed, the Iranian government wields a blunt edge when it comes to the suppression of information that’s potentially harmful to governance or insulting to a medieval construction of Islamic mores. A vast spectrum of media is subject to restriction – television, print, media, radio, film…even art galleries and cultural exhibitions. You name it, they’ll edit, expunge, or otherwise eliminate it.
Since the Green Revolution, some of the world’s most popular websites have been off limits. Reporting for The Guardian in 2010, Robert Tait wrote that edicts have been issued against sites such as Amazon.com, YouTube, Wikipedia, IMDB.com and The New York Times. Anyone who attempts to access these sites receives a simple negation: “The requested page is forbidden.”
Jamillah Knowles, of TheNextWeb.com, reports that stiff moral values and an iron grip on dissent have cut off the Iranian people from approximately one quarter of the internet. She writes, specifically:
In the news sector 32% of the world’s top news sites are blocked. Currently, BBC News, The Guardian, Fox News, The Huffington Post and the New York Post sites are blocked, but interestingly CNN, Reuters, and Bloomberg are still accessible.
As reported last December, Iran is now constructing a “national” internet that would effectively detach Iranian cyberspace from the rest of the world…Wide Web. Similar to the parochial intranet architecture raised in North Korea, Iran’s project would consist of an insular data network offered within the sovereign borders of the Islamic Republic. It would also represent a whole new take on political censorship.
(Of interest, the website viewdns.info has compiled a raw list of websites that are censored in Iran and a test function to determine if a particular site is firewalled, with a tip of the hat to Ms. Knowles.)
This is most unfortunate. Ultimately, the ruling regime will not fall absent international electronic subterfuge – not of the Stuxnet-sort. 2009’s Green Revolution was catalyzed by a diffusion of electronic information within a virtual public square. Consider then, a nation of 75 million souls where more than two-thirds of that population is under the age of 30. These 50 million young Iranians don’t remember Khomeini’s revolution, but they know plenty about civil oppression, mounting poverty, and increasing isolation from the international community.
Now imagine these young men and women are suddenly and completely severed from the internet…from that virtual public square that allows them to long for something better. It makes my trivial experience with The Tehran Times pale in comparison.
Writing in the 19th century, manufacturer and British MP, Richard Cobden, wrote of commerce as the “grand panacea.” In his words:
“Not a bale of merchandise leaves our shores, but it bears the seeds of intelligence and fruitful thought to the members of some less enlightened community; not a merchant visits our seats of manufacturing industry, but he returns to his own country the missionary of freedom, peace, and good government – whilst our steam boats, that now visit every port in Europe, and our miraculous railroads, that are the talk of all nations, are the advertisements and vouchers for the value of enlightened union.”
With apologies for the paternalism of the latter, we’ve entered an internet age. Substitute "commerce" for "information." The dissemination of ideas and identities will ultimately unseat illiberal and illegitimate regimes. Ideas are simply more powerful than bombs or computer worms. Today’s “grand panacea” is communication, plain and simple. Attempts to censor such exchange speak to an inherent fear, made manifest in states such as Iran.
Once upon a time, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was developed to provide news, information, and analysis “where the free flow information is either banned by government authorities or not fully developed.” Lucky for us taxpayers, the internet has largely privatized that mission.
Time to win the war of ideas. And keep the proverbial lights on in Iran.