An aged and renewed war has always raised in dictatorial countries. The fronts of this war have included, on the one hand, the public opinion, which is always thirsty for the free flow of information. On the other one, there are dictatorial governments that would not submit to the rules of an open society in the 21st century. While having to go through the hassles of this real media war and its repercussions, societies seeking to liberate themselves from the media blackout shackles have been through bitter experiences of government censorship for decades, without any signs of surrender and submission appearing on either side.
Dictatorships are the enemies of free flow of information
Autocratic states such as China, Russia, and Iran, whose leaders have combined all the reins of government in their hands, owe their lasting rule to the darkness of government censorship. They, of course, got to this point with the help of some individuals and institutions that have been placed at the forefront of the country’s various political, cultural, and economic spheres.
Generally speaking, these countries share their hostility to the free flow of information, and each seeks, according to its ability, to impose strict censorship to prevent its citizens from getting unrestrained access to the Internet. However, what matters is that these dictatorships are trying to learn from each other and share experiences in this field. These countries even sometimes response in a similar way when it comes to narrowing the virtual space, although they stay hidden behind sweet-talk such as independent and national Internet law.
Iranian view of the free flow of information
The full censorship of media and cultural affairs being the most important tools of political domination and control over a society has been one of the main concerns and top priorities of Iranian officials since the successful revolution in 1979. Therefore, the new regime’s approach to be having a complete control over the media and the country’s cultural space has come to engineer the public opinion within the framework of the Shiite government’s values model, and to Islamize the society, while maintaining the unique dictatorial understanding of rule that is now wearing a religious cloak and turban.
Government’s war against the free flow of information
The roots of the government’s war against the media and unauthorized types of culture and arts go back forty years ago, when the government’s censorship policy began to impose controls on the media and cultural affairs, such as printing books and distributing leaflets, journals and newspapers.
For example, several people were arrested and executed for distributing publications of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran and its newspaper in 1980. Furthermore, owning foreign films and video tapes was considered a major crime in the black decade of the eighties, during the term of office of the reformist Mohammad Khatami in particular.
In the nineties and the first decade of the twenty-first century, the government launched a new war on satellite dishes. Licensed non-state media outlets were also forced to submit to this government censorship. At that time, breaking out of the narrow circle that was imposed would have the media out of business.
Following that, the gradual use of the Internet and the rise of emerging social media have marked the first significant shift in the balance of power in favor of Iranian civil society, which have eagerly been striving to find ways to reduce the government restrictions pressure. In addition, the unprecedented spread of blogging in Iran and whereby a large number of citizens emerged to play the role of media outlets have changed the media in this period.
When the golden age of Persian-speaking blogs popped up, the Khatami government moved towards managing any produced content. It planned and implemented the first Internet censorship and filtering project.
However, according to conducted research, the number of Persian websites and blogs was close to 700,000 until 2005. This was three years before forming the Green Movement. These Persian websites reached that number as the Iranian activists were cleverly using the open skies of virtual space to fight repression and censorship.
As a result of the Green Revolution’s repercussions in 2009, the issue of Internet repression reached its climax, when the Internet was cut off during the outbreak of popular protests against the presidential elections in a complete and unprecedented manner.
In addition, the concept of the “National Internet” began to take shape under Ahmadinejad’s government: ideas, such as the national operating system, the national antivirus, and Islamic Google Maps, and others, began to emerge.
Nevertheless, contrary to what some believe, Ahmadinejad’s government was unable to fully implement the idea of the National Internet until the reformist Rouhani government came along, when this idea moved from the planning and research stage to the stages of implementation.
Despite the methods used by the Rouhani government to change the behavior of Internet users in Iran, new circumstances, such as the spread of smart phones and the spread of modern Internet networks among the middle class, have diminished the state media’s power. The state media is no longer able to hide facts from society, rather, it has found itself forced to interact with them for fear of the public frustration turning into real uprisings on the ground.
For example, the incidents of previous years, such as the 2019–2020 Iranian protests in November, shooting down a Ukrainian airplane and major government corruption cases, were scenes of the ongoing media battle between the government and civil society, which has become having a kind of independence in information circulation despite government oversight and controls.
The repercussions of the end of comprehensive government control era
Contrary to what was the situation in the first two decades of the current Iranian regime rise, when the government could simply impose whatever it wanted on the media, Iranian society today enjoys a large degree of freedom and independence in the field of information circulation, which has created a new type of indirect relationship between society and the government. This relationship clearly expresses a changing-of-power state that is, the government has lost the initiative in favor of civil society, which is now leading a war against the government’s propaganda system through media actions, widespread information dissemination and criticism of official news.
In the meantime, the state media is completely helpless in front of this phenomenon because they know very well that the people have now other credible sources of information. The government media has realized that they must change the way they work to attract the public and avoid provoking the people with misleading information, which can be easily detected by comparing it to the set of information that is transmitted from one phone to another with perfect ease.
Moreover, the Iranian society today has figured out the ability to protest in various ways against government policies and inefficiencies, to create new spaces for dialogue and to criticize officials and demand answers on emerging issues.
Therefore, in times of political crisis, the supremacy of the non-state media and their openness to the public arena is a vital and frightening matter that gets dictatorial governments to concern. The key to future developments may also depend on this media war during which a kind of hypothetical opposition to the government authority has been formed in a country almost devoid of actual civil society activities, political parties, and NGOs.
Briefly, the Iranian government’s efforts to isolate the country through launching the national Internet may contribute to restricting the freedom of information flow in the short term. However, given the technical development taking place in communications globally, this situation will be transient, which clarifies the point that is, the unrestrained Internet has now become the most effective means of resistance to confront the false empire which has always strived to keep facts trapped inside the government’s walls.