Censorship and Freedom

28May11

In today’s The Wall Street Journal there is an interesting article with the deceptive lead “Iran Vows to Unplug Internet“. The article is about the Islamic Republic’s push to create a national internet to make it easier for the state to regulate content and ostensibly also more affordable for users. So not about unplugging the internet at all. But never mind, the article is still worth reading. However this effort to control the internet in Iran ought to be placed in the historical context of fighting Western imperialism. While this rationale is often used to unjustly silence legitimate political and social critiques from Iranians themselves, it still is important to understand.

Iranians are resentful of the 1953 coup sponsored by London and Washington that removed the popularly elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq. They still bristle over the unconditional support both countries subsequently gave to the autocratic Shah. They recently watched the Americans and British invade neighboring Iraq and know that Washington allocates aid to unpopular Iranian fringe groups that are seeking to destabilize the government in Tehran. And more recently, Iranians have had to deal with the Stuxnet virus that momentarily disabled the country’s nuclear program. According to the WJS article, Iran blames the United States and Israel for this cyber attack, but Western scholars and journalists also make that charge and neither Washington nor Tel Aviv has challenged these claims.

As a result of this long history of Western oppression, freedom in the Islamic Republic today has as much to do with protecting Iranian society from imperialism as it does with individual rights. Thus the government’s desire to patrol the internet and mitigate foreign influences is understandable, even if we still do not think it is quite justified.

But the article appears to believe that such censorship is only a behavior of states aligned against the West, such as Cuba and Myanmar. There is no mention of similar efforts by the American state, for example, to limit our access to information. Some of the political censorship in the United States is successful only because of the capitalist economic base of our media. For example when Octavia Nasr was fired from her job at CNN last summer for publicly expressing sympathy for the death of late religious authority H.E. Sayyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlullah. Uncritical supporters of Israel went crazy and Nasr’s editorial judgement was suddenly questioned after twenty years of media service. God forbid that Americans learn about the respected position of an influential spiritual leader who promoted justice for all peoples, especially considering the CIA attempted to assassinate him but killed dozens of civilians instead.

At least today the blanket commercial ban on Al Jazeera television is hopefully coming to an end. Nevertheless some state censorship is still pursued through the American courts. A few years ago a Pakistani immigrant from Staten Island was arrested for including Al Manar television in a satellite package to customers. Although he had already lived in America for twenty years and has a family there, he will likely be deported after he serves his five year prison sentence. So it seems that Iran, Cuba and Myanmar are not such special cases after all…

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