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EDITORIAL: Free 'press' threatens oppressive regimes
[June 25, 2009]

EDITORIAL: Free 'press' threatens oppressive regimes

Jun 25, 2009 (The Fresno Bee - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Iran has long been hostile to a free press, knowing that it can better control its citizens if they don't have access to news and information that doesn't go through government censors. It's part of living in an oppressive society. A third of the world's population live in nondemocratic states that don't allow a free press.

That makes it impossible for citizens to know what their government is doing. They get a diet of propaganda that is designed to keep government leaders in power and the citizenry in the dark.

But even as the media have been controlled in Iran, citizens seeking freedom look for ways to communicate freely. The election protests in Tehran were organized around information technology breakthroughs. This technology has made it much more difficult for the regime to control people's access to information.

Iranians have made use of cell phone calls, text messages, e-mails and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook to organize protests. They can't provide the outside world with information through the media, but they allow Iranians to communicate with each other and to organize dissent.

The world first saw the effect of Western communication technology in the revolutions in the Soviet-bloc countries of Central and Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s.

In Iran, a relatively prosperous and highly computer-literate society, the government has blocked Web sites (including, and cell phone service has been intermittent. But people have been incredibly enterprising.

San Francisco-based Twitter has been particularly censorship-resistant because it is an open system. Multiple paths can read and write the Twitter data stream. Twitter users can send text messages (limited to 140 characters) to unlimited numbers of cell phones.

Twitterers post messages with the term "#IranElection," so people can easily follow the stream.

Industry observers have been wondering how Twitter's open system will ever make money, but its openness and simplicity clearly are a virtue when doing battle with repressive regimes.

In Iran, the catalyst for the popular uprising was a disputed presidential election. But it has become much more than that. The elected president and elected parliament do not rule the country; the unelected religious clerics do. The protests are a threat to their power -- if not immediately, then over the long term.

History is on the move. People are gathering in public, despite pronouncements that doing so is against the law of the Islamic Republic and can be punishable by death. And people have been killed, 32 according to a leading human rights group. Others have been arrested.

You won't read that in the Iranian media.

But watch out, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which are ripe for openness. In North Korea, a much more isolated and poorer country, technology may take a while longer to have an impact. But somebody will figure out how to get flash drives and cell phones into that country, too. Zimbabwe, in southern Africa, also would benefit from a communications revolution.

A free press is at the heart of a democracy, and we hope the technology breakthrough will allow an independent media to emerge in Iran. When you have a free press, you have a free society.

With the media restrictions in Iran, Americans are getting a glimpse of what life without a free press and independent newspapers would be like. And it isn't pretty.

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