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TitleHow the Iranian regime can't win the battle of disinformation

The room of knowledge

8 Jul 2010

■ Ann De Craemer

Situation 1: The floral covers on the seats of our compartment remind me of a cosy sitting room, but the young man opposite me is not at ease. He coughs. He chews his bottom lip. He looks outside. He examines his fingernails. Whenever we catch each other’s eye, he looks away quickly. Five long minutes later I break the silence by asking him his name. He looks almost relieved as he sees the tension quickly vanishing through our train window. When he have talked for about ten minutes, he is even bold enough to ask me a question himself. ‘Miss, I would like to know what people in the West think about the general IQ of our Iranian nation.’ The general IQ? I frown. What exactly does he mean? Is there such a thing as the general IQ of the Iranian nation? He nods convincingly. ‘My professor told me that calculations have proven that Iranians are more intelligent than other people.’ Be khoda, my god, what do I have to answer? I honestly tell him that I don’t believe in something like the general IQ of a nation – after all, what is a nation, and how do you calculate its IQ? ‘So people in the West don’t know that Iranians are more intelligent than people of other nations?’ I almost feel pity for him: does he really believe what his professor has told him, or is he angling for a compliment of a western woman? I try to reassure him: people in the West certainly don’t think that Iranians are stupid. My answer however doesn’t satisfy him.

Situation 2: I’m standing near the grave of King Cyrus the Great in Pasargadae as the sun is gloriously disappearing behind the mountains. Mehrnoosh is a lawyer working in the southern port of Bushehr and wants to know what I think about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory in the presidential elections. Mehrnoosh tells me how disappointed he is. After some seconds of silence, he asks me a question that dumbfounds me. ‘What is actually the Holocaust in your opinion?’ His wife, who has just come and joined us, takes a step backward. I briefly mention Hitler, gas chambers and six million Jews. Mehrnoosh shakes his head. ‘Why does everyone in Europe just assume this is true? How reliable is your proof?’ His words make me feel uncomfortable – I really don’t want to go into this discussion.

Situation 3: My photographer Pieter-Jan, our guide Ahmad and myself are booking a hotel room in Chahar Bagh Street in Isfahan. Ahmad and Pieter-Jan sleep in one room; I take a room of my own. The man behind the reception desk looks bewildered. ‘Why,’ he asks with a voice full of genuine surprise, ‘do you book a separate room for yourself?’ The question astonishes me. I tell him that I need my privacy and that Pieter-Jan and Ahmad are good friends, but we don’t share rooms. He raises his eyebrows. ‘I don’t understand. I thought in the West women have no problems to sleep with someone they don’t have a relationship with?’

Take a look at these three situations and ask yourself what they have in common. The answer is simple. All three arose from the biggest problem Iranian people are faced with today: lack of information. Did these three people react stupidly? Yes and no. Yes, if you look at their answers in isolation. No, because in the Iranian context, it’s wrong to look at their answers in isolation. If anyone in Europe would ask me why I don’t sleep with two men who are mere travel companions, I would get angry. In Iran, I didn’t. On the contrary: the receptionist’s words saddened me, as they made me realize how isolated the country is that I have fallen in love with.

Denying freedom of information is denying the right to be human

The Iranian regime is afraid of information, because information is knowledge, and knowledge is power – at least, if that knowledge is properly provided, because there is also another side to information. When improperly provided and presented, knowledge can be very destructive. That is what happened to the three people I have just told you about. The Iranian regime ‘gives’ people wrong, improper and one-sided information about things like the West, the Holocaust and the Iranian nation, which causes some people to suffer from tunnel view. Talking about indoctrination in these cases is maybe a bridge too far, although the young ‘IQ-man’ in the train seemed to be using a rhetoric he had heard so much that it had become a part of him. When he asked me if I believed in God and I answered negatively, he told me that ‘surely your government has not provided you with the right information. If they would have given you reliable information, surely you would realize that everything in this world is arranged by God.’ For a smart guy who studied electro mechanics at Arak University, these words sounded very odd. They came to my mind again when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed in a speech on June 17, 2010 that ‘if the US offered its citizens the right to freedom of information on world affairs, so that the American people could be fully informed of their leaders’ support for Israeli atrocities as well as the crimes they have committed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the people would take effective measures against their statesmen. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: master of irony.

Denying its citizens freedom of information is one of the biggest crimes of the Iranian regime. It’s a denial of the basic human desire and need to shape one’s outlook on the world and thus make one’s personality grow and develop. In other words: denying freedom of information is denying the right to be human.

There is however one power this regime can’t win its battle with: the Internet. In the past, censorship used to be primarily aimed at writers, poets and journalists, because the regime knows that life in a dictatorship makes the pen mightier than the sword. In our day and age however, the Internet has made everyone a writer. The regime’s censorship of the Internet is indeed very advanced, but so is the inventiveness of young Iranians to circumvent sophisticated filtering systems. As James Cowie commented right after the 2009 presidential elections on the Renesys internet intelligence blog: ‘If you put 65 million people in a locked room, they’re going to find all the exits pretty quickly, and maybe make a few of their own.’

The regime’s room is getting smaller, while the room of the Iranian people is expanding. As for my hotel room in a future free Iran, the handsome receptionist will answer my desiring look by asking if a single western woman travelling alone is sure she doesn’t want a single bed instead of a double one.

 
Tehran Review
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  1. Abi says:

    well, It is very important that Iranian citizens could have acces to news by internet without any censsor. As every one knew, the news which broadcast by regime media completly change and many of Iranian never could access to the reality behind it.

    The Iranian constitutional revolution at around 1910 also shown us the importance of using a new technology to getting the correct information which
    in that case was telegraph.

    fortunately, using internet many of us could get the latest news and videos during protest from streets, in order to be able to arrange the protest time and place.

    I think one of the main things that Iranian needs to be able to fight against this regime is the real information which is possible true an internet without any censor.

  2. Navid says:

    I do feel sympathy with your point about disinformation but I really don’t know to what extent you can generalize your examples?! and to what extent this kind of situations are exclusively “Iranian”! to be honest I feel a kind of unconscious misrepresentation of the Iranian situation in your works (which I’ve been following on TR). A misrepresentation which probably has it’s roots in the assumption of an “anthropological” observer’s point of view which leads to the construction of an Other once you are temporally and spatially far from your “field” and “informants”. i

  3. Ann says:

    Salam Navid,
    Thanks for your comment. I have not said that disinformation is exclusively Iranian. Of course, you could say that in the West, some people are disinformed as well, depending on what media they rely on. But if someone living in a democracry with freedom of press, wants to know more than what ‘regular’ media inform him with, he or she can do that, because there’s a whole room of knowledge on the internet. There is always the freedom to broaden one’s perspective.  

  4. Navid says:

    Ann,

    You’re definitely right that citizens of democratic societies have more opportunities to broaden their perspectives if they wish (however maybe we shouldn’t forget that the “whole room of knowledge on the Internet” is also conditioned by certain power relations which that room of knowledge presupposes and constitutes); and I emphasize again that I do feel sympathy with your main point. However, what I wished to point out was rather the problem of (mis)representation. Your text takes three similar “situations” and generalizes ‘what they have in common’ over all other situations. But such situations are totally contingent. During your travels you might have bumped to radically different “situations” as well. Or one might encounter quite similar situations in any other time-space. But when a text is constructed from the point of view of an “anthropologist-observer” the very contingency of the sample situations will go unnoticed because those people the observer has encountered will be seen as “informants” of a (fundamentally different) culture and this is exactly what allows the writer of such a text to over-generalize her/his sample situations and derive quasi-necessary conclusions from them.

  5. Ann says:

    Salam Navid,
    Of course no situation is exactly comparable to another one. But I think we can see how these three situations have a really similar background, that is: the lack of being informed. Yes, absolutely, I have been in situations in for instance my own country Belgium where it was clear that people were not well informed. But then that’s because they often choose not to be better informed, whereas the case is different in Iran. I understand what you mean, but I think you are analyzing this text from an academic point of view, whereas this text is a column; not a lengthy analysis.

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