Iran blocks TV, radio and phones, but web proves more difficult

Iran is engaged in widespread efforts to clamp down on broadcast, mobile phone and internet communications in the wake of the contested election results.

The BBC has called on those responsible in Iran to stop interfering with its broadcasts. The intensive jamming is disrupting not only BBC Persian TV but also TV broadcasts to the Middle East and Europe, according to the BBC World Service director, Peter Horrocks.

It is not clear who is interfering with the broadcasts, but Horrocks said that satellite technicians had traced the source of interference to Iran. And he said that the interference fit into “a pattern of behaviour by the Iranian authorities to limit the reporting of the aftermath of the disputed election”. He wrote on the BBC Editors’ blog: “Any attempt to block this channel is wrong and against international treaties on satellite communication. Whoever is attempting the blocking should stop it now.”

Jamming over-the-air transmissions like radio and satellite isn’t difficult. To jam satellite or radio broadcasts, one simply needs to generate interference on the frequencies that the broadcast uses. Even in ordinary homes, microwave ovens, Wi-Fi equipment and even some digital phones can all interfere with one another because they operate on the same frequencies.

Jamming on the scale necessary to disrupt radio and television broadcasts is easily traced due to the strength of the interference necessary. Taking readings from multiple locations, technicians can locate the source.

Richard Sambrook, the director of the BBC’s Global News division, is worried that “satellite operators may come under pressure to drop news channels if the interference affects other commercial communications operations too widely”.

Iran’s government appears to be selectively shutting down parts of the mobile phone network.

The internet is slightly more difficult to completely block because it is designed to be routed around problems, even if that problem is government censorship. However, in countries like Iran and China, the government controls much of the infrastructure and can cut down on the number of alternate pathways to uncensored information.

In a 2007 report, the OpenNet Initiative said that “the Islamic Republic of Iran has installed one of the most extensive technical filtering systems in the world”. Iran requires all internet providers to go through state-controlled gateways, and internet providers must employ filtering software. Reformist party websites, photo-sharing site Flickr, foreign blog hosting sites and social networks such as Facebook are often blocked in Iran.

Sophisticated users are able to route through alternate pathways or proxies to bypass government controlled gateways. Information about open proxies is being passed around on micro-blogging service Twitter to allow Iranian internet users unfettered access to the internet, but this is often a cat-and-mouse game. Government censors block the proxies as soon as they become aware of them.


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