Information Warfare: The Threat From Outer Space

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August 25, 2016: Once again Iran is undertaking a major police effort to prevent Iranians from receiving foreign TV programming. By mid-2016 at least 100,000 illegal satellite dishes were seized and over a million others were voluntarily turned in to avoid a fine and possible jail time. This time around many senior government officials openly protested the seizures pointing out that despite over a decade of efforts some 70 percent of Iranian homes have satellite TV receivers and knowingly risk punishment if caught. For a long time most Iranian homes have had a satellite dish if only to view one of the dozens of foreign channels that provide Farsi (the main Iranian language) news and other shows that do not conform to what the religious dictatorship considers acceptable. Advances in technology since the 1970s has made it increasingly difficult for the Iranian religious dictatorship to keep Iranians away from satellite TV.

Until the 1990s the only satellite TV receivers were large dishes that were difficult to hide. But during the 1990s satellite TV receivers got a lot cheaper, smaller and easier to hide from the police. This triggered sporadic major campaigns by the Iranian government to find and destroy them all and discourage Iranians from replacing them. That has not worked. It was not for want of trying. In 2002 Iranian police and pro-government vigilantes were seizing up to 500 satellite TV dishes a week. Watching foreign TV had long been forbidden but the failed 2002 police effort made it clear people got satellite dishes were willing and able to replace those seized.

Other nations noticed this. In mid-2003 the U.S. began a satellite TV news show ("News and Views"), in Farsi, broadcasting it into Iran each night between 9:30-10 PM Iran time. Iran protested that this was illegal but the United States wanted to encourage and support the majority of Iranians who were agitating for reforms and freedom from the dictatorship of the clerics. Iran had already been jamming satellite TV broadcasts but with limited success. The addition of the American show complicated there jamming efforts.

In 2009 The BBC began eight hours of satellite TV programming for Iran. A week later the Iranian government declared the British effort illegal and said any Iranian viewing or appearing on the service or otherwise cooperating with the BBC would be breaking a law. The BBC service provided about eight hours a day of news and cultural programs, prepared and broadcast by Iranian exiles in Britain. In Iran, the lifestyle police frequently raid homes in affluent neighborhoods looking for illegal satellite dishes, videos and recorded music. But most Iranians avoid the police, and quietly enjoy their forbidden entertainment.

The Iranian government often played dirty itself. In 2012 two European satellite TV and radio providers invoked sanctions on Iran and halted delivery of Iranian programming outside Iran. Syria and Iran then began quietly jamming BBC, France 24, Deutsche Welle, and the Voice of America broadcasts, via radio and satellite, to Iran and Syria (who denied they were jamming). There was ample evidence that the jamming is coming from Syria and Iran. At the same time Iran warned media to not report on how the sanctions were hurting Iran. That slowed down but not stop the spread of such news. Plenty of information on sanction-related suffering within Iran got out of the country via cell phones, Internet, and plain old person-to-person gossip. Foreign news organizations collected all this then sometimes reinterpreted it in interesting ways and those reports got back into Iran via the Internet, illegal satellite dishes and shortwave radio. This government ban backfired because it confirmed all the rumors, including the exaggerated and untrue ones. But the government keeps trying because they have found that the free flow of information is their worst enemy.

 


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