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Event: Satellite Jamming in Iran - A War Over Airwaves

On 20 November we launched our latest report, “Satellite Jamming in Iran: A War Over Airwaves”, at the Houses of Parliament in association with the Foreign Policy Centre. MP and co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group of Iran Rt Hon Ben Wallace chaired the event, which included a Q&A with experts Mahmood Enayat (Small Media’s director), Mahmoud Tadjallimehr (telecommunications expert), Sadeq Saba (Head of BBC Persian) and Tahirih Danesh (senior research associate of the FPC). Tehran Bureau has published an excellent write-up that summarises our report and gets to the core of the issue of satellite jamming in Iran, a mode of censorship that is stifling Iranian access to free and diverse information.

During the event Enayat revealed that instances of jamming in Iran coincide with key political dates. Sadeq Saba, Head of BBC Persian agreed: “Iran doesn’t jam pornographic channels, it’s not an Islam issue, it’s a politics issue”. Enayat called for the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to update their regulations and create scalable sanctions for member states that engage in satellite jamming.

Many have argued that Iran should not be able to broadcast their own channels via satellite whilst simultaneously making no effort to stem the flow of jamming that has been geo-located to within their borders. This is an oversimplification and Sadeq Saba clarified that this would breach Iran’s right to broadcast freely.

Under current ITU regulations, Iran is actually within their remit to block ‘alien’ content beaming across their borders, but the key issue here is that uplink satellite jamming is akin to global censorship. Uplink satellite jamming wipes out frequencies for all who are tuned into the satellite itself, not just those in Iran. It also has knock-on effects for channels coupled with the target on the same transponder.

Saba argued that the recent removal of several IRIB (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting) channels from Eutelsat was not a retaliatory move.  Ezzatollah Zarghami, Head of IRIB, has been on the European sanctions list for violations against human rights since May 2012. Thus, there is a clear legal basis for the programming under his jurisdiction, which includes forced confessions, show trials, and interviews with prisoners under duress, to be removed from the airwaves.  Saba concluded, “Khamanei is responsible for satellite jamming, even the communications minister wants to know where it comes from”.

Tadjallimehr called for a joint effort, arguing that broadcasters, governments, the ITU and channel representatives are all deferring the responsibility. If all parties contributed their resources, a combined and concerted effort against satellite jamming could surely have some impact.

Tahirih Danesh spoke of the health risks and referred to increases in premature birth, miscarriage, and cancer in Iran as evidence. In addition to uplink jamming, Iran also engages in downlink jamming, which is far more dangerous and far more difficult to detect. Sadeq Saba reinforced this point stating that BBC Persian had investigated how easy it would be to acquire satellite jamming equipment and send it to Iran. Not only was it simple, the supplier warned the BBC Persian team of the serious health effects associated with it.

What does jamming look like? The BBC have created this video, which replicates the viewer experience and includes some key statistics on satellite jamming.