Iran: Censorship and Satellites

A battle for the future of Iran is shaping up in outer space, and it's not about missiles or nuclear weapons. It's about information—the ability to jam the signal that brings the news to the Iranian people via satellite television. And for the moment, it's a fight the Iranian government appears to be losing.

Since June 12, 2009, when the apparent fraud of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's reelection provoked outrage on the streets of Tehran, his regime has worked to stifle any reporting of discontent. As images of the protests—and the repression—made their way out of the country on cell phones and through social media, the Iranian government frantically blocked access. But even more important than the way those images got out was the way they got back in: picked up and rebroadcast by international news organizations that reached tens of millions of Iranians who don't have the Internet but who do have satellite dishes.

So the Iranian government set out to block the satellite networks it thought posed the biggest challenge to its power. No. 1 on the list: BBC Persian TV, which began broadcasting in January '09, just months before the election. The mullahs blocked the BBC signal by uplinking static on the same frequency. In the process, however, they also garbled other commercial programming in Iran that comes from the same satellite, Hot Bird 6 (which carries several more or less pornographic channels as well as mainstream Western media). Eutelsat and GlobeCast, the French-owned companies that run Hot Bird, moved the BBC signal to other satellites that were harder for the Iranian government to jam. But anyone who wanted to watch the channel had to reposition the dish—and risk losing all the other programming.

Earlier this year the French lodged a formal protest with the International Telecommunications Union, which criticized Iran. But three industry sources, who didn't want to be named discussing the mullahs' telecom disputes, say the Iranian government is in a difficult spot: Iran's domestic TV broadcasts—key to the regime's ability to maintain control and stability—depend on the very European satellites Iran is toying with to get its signals distributed across the country. (Arab-owned satellites have quit carrying Iran's broadcasts, and Iran has no satellites of its own.) Ezatollah Zarghami, chairman of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, told a conference late last month: "We jam them, they jam us in return. And then our channels are taken off their satellite…So we have to make sure that we don't overreach ourselves." If the satellite fight gets too hot, the Europeans could just pull the plug. Since the end of May, BBC Persian TV has been transmitted from Hot Bird and is broadcasting, so far, without interference.