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Freedom of Information on Nowruz

Iran urged to pull back its ‘Electronic Curtain,’ end harassment of journalists.

The Obama administration has announced new guidelines that ease export controls on the transfer of certain modern communications tools to Iran.

‘How could this be?’ you may ask, ‘when the United States and most of the world have slapped a broad trade embargo on Iran because of its nuclear program?’

Yes, the administration is trying to block Iran from acquiring technology that would be helpful to a nuclear weapons program, and it has promoted a tight economic embargo designed to pressure Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. But now one part of that embargo is being eased, in an effort to help the people of Iran to circumvent government censorship of the Internet and independent sources of reliable news, such as the Voice of America.

On March 20th, President Obama sent a message to millions of Iranians around the world who are celebrating Nowruz. “There is no reason for the United States and Iran to be divided from one another,” Mr. Obama said. In his remarks, which were carried by VOA’s Persian Service during an eleven-hour Nowruz TV special, the president also said, “The people of Iran should know that the United States of America seeks a future of deeper connections between our people.”

Unfortunately, the Iranian government lately has been intensifying its efforts to block access to information. By jamming satellite news programs, censoring the Internet, and monitoring computers and cell phones, the regime is repressing its citizens with the very technologies that should empower them. Because of these actions, Mr. Obama said, “An electronic curtain has fallen around Iran – a barrier that stops the free flow of information.”

In a move to circumvent this censorship, the Obama administration has published a list showing the kinds of software and services that are authorized for export to the people of Iran: tools that will make it easier for them to “connect with the rest of the world through modern communications methods.”

The list of items includes widely-used programs such as Yahoo Messenger, Google Talk and Skype. It also includes updates to personal communications software, Internet browsers, plug-ins like Flashplayer, document readers like Acrobat, plus free mobile apps and RSS feed readers. Some of these programs have helped Iranians to watch VOA programs, such as the popular Persian TV show Parazit, which has been downloaded millions of times from its Facebook page, since Iran frequently jams VOA’s satellite television signal.

We hope the measures announced this week will make it easier for people in Iran to learn what is happening in the world around them, from VOA and others.

The Iranian state ‘Press TV’ broadcasts satellite television programs in multiple languages around the world, without interference from anyone, and they use western commercial satellites to do so. It is time for satellite companies and the firms that broker space on them to agree on some industry self-regulation. They should agree together that if Iran continues to use uplink satellite jamming to disrupt the transmissions of scores of broadcasters as well as broadband capacity companies, then Iran’s ‘Press TV’ will no longer be permitted to book satellite transponders to send out its own programming.

Earlier this month, my counterpart at the BBC in London spoke out forcefully against the Iranian government’s harassment and intimidation against the family members of BBC journalists, a practice that journalists at VOA and other U.S. media outlets are all too familiar with. During this season of Nowruz, we call on the Iranian government to end these dishonorable practices, and to draw back its “electronic curtain,” restoring the freedom of information to the Iranian people.

David Ensor