Technology vs. Tyranny

The Wall Street Journal reports Saturday that Turkey and Pakistan are blocking, monitoring, and threatening such websites as Google, YouTube, Facebook, Yahoo, and Amazon. At least you’ve got to give them credit for going after the big guys! The Journal notes, “A number of countries in the Islamic world, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, have banned Internet content in the past for being sacrilegious. But those countries have authoritarian governments that closely monitor the Internet and the media.” Of course, it’s not just Islamic countries that try to protect their citizens – or subjects – from dissenting thoughts. China has been involved in well-publicized battles with Google, Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV, and other media companies.

But it’s hard to make your country a part of the world economy and keep it closed to outside thoughts and images. North Korea may be able to do it – though recent stories suggest that even the benighted people of the world’s most closed society know more about the world than we have previously thought. Countries that don’t want to be North Korea have a harder time. The latest example: Thomas Erdbrink reports in the Washington Post that Murdoch’s Farsi1 satellite station is

pulling in Iranian viewers with sizzling soaps and sitcoms but has incensed the Islamic republic’s clerics and state television executives.

Unlike dozens of other foreign-based satellite channels here, Farsi1 broadcasts popular Korean, Colombian and U.S. shows and also dubs them in Iran’s national language, Farsi, rather than using subtitles, making them more broadly accessible. Its popularity has soared since its launch in August….

Satellite receivers are illegal in Iran but widely available. Officials acknowledge that they jam many foreign channels using radio waves, but Farsi1, which operates out of the Hong Kong-based headquarters of Star TV, a subsidiary of Murdoch’s News Corp., is still on the air in Tehran.

Viewers are increasingly deserting the six channels operated by Iranian state television, with its political, ideological and religious constraints, for Farsi1’s more daring fare, including the U.S. series “Prison Break,” “24” and “Dharma and Greg.”

Those who want to build a wall around the minds of the Iranian people denounce Murdoch and his temptations:

Some critics here hold Murdoch responsible for what they see as this new infestation of corrupt Western culture. The prominent hard-line magazine Panjereh, or Window, devoted its most recent issue to Farsi1, featuring on the cover a digitally altered version of an evil-looking Murdoch sporting a button in the channel’s signature pink and white colors. “Murdoch is a secret Jew trying to control the world’s media, and [he] promotes Farsi1,” the magazine declared.

“Farsi1’s shows might be accepted in Western culture … but this is the first time that such things are being shown and offered so directly, completely and with ulterior motives to Iranian society. Does anybody hear alarm bells?” wrote Morteza Najafi, a regular Panjereh contributor.

The Iranian state – Akbar Ganji calls it a “sultanate” in Weberian terms – has tried to block access to Farsi1. It jams foreign channels, it sends police out to confiscate satellite dishes, but it can’t seem to prevent many citizens from tuning in to officially banned broadcasts.

Way back in 1979, David Ramsay Steele of the Libertarian Alliance in Great Britain wrote about the changes beginning in China. He quoted authors in the official Beijing Review who were explaining that China would adopt the good aspects of the West – technology, innovation, entrepreneurship – without adopting its liberal values. “We should do better than the Japanese,” the authors wrote. “They have learnt from the United States not only computer science but also strip-tease. For us it is a matter of acquiring the best of the developed capitalist countries while rejecting their philosophy.” But, Steele replied, countries like China have a choice. “You play the game of catallaxy, or you do not play it. If you do not play it, you remain wretched. But if you play it, you must play it. You want computer science? Then you have to put up with striptease.” 

North Korea and Burma choose to “remain wretched.” That’s not the future Iran’s leaders want. But they too will find it difficult to keep their citizens in an information straitjacket while participating in a global economy. 

Footnote: In all this discussion of how authoritarian governments try to protect their citizens from offensive images, alternative ideas, and what’s going on in the rest of the world, I am for some reason reminded of the “30 Rock” episode in which NBC executive Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) is trying to figure out how to deal with a high-strung performer. Another actress tells him, ”You’ve got to lie to her, coddle her, protect her from the real world.” Jack replies,”I get it – treat her like the New York Times treats its readers.”