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Iran Resorts To Jamming To Keep Voters On-Message


Tehran (AFP) Jun 07, 2005

Switch on your satellite television receiver in Tehran nowadays and
something is amiss - "No Signal", the otherwise fuzzy television screen says
for much of the day and night.

With presidential elections just over a week away, Islamic Iran's
technological guardians appear to be waging a war against enemies in the
airwaves - opposition-run television channels.

The problem, however, is that they may also be frying people's brains.

"Microwaves," explained an Iranian satellite television technician, who
earns his keep by installing dishes even though they are technically banned.

"They're jamming, and these signals used to block the satellites have never
been so strong," said the dish man, who for obvious reasons preferred that
he not be named.

Since Iran's Islamic revolution 26 years ago, the regime has been fighting
off what it calls "Westoxication". But in recent years satellite dishes have
mushroomed across the rooftops of the sprawling, smog-ridden capital.

Police and militiamen launch occasional crackdowns, but it is a losing
battle. So instead they appear to be throwing out noise -- blocking out 20
or so opposition channels and their mix of heretical anti-regime chatter and
saucy Persian pop videos.

"Day and night, the opposition radio and television stations keep calling on
our people to boycott the election," fumed Ayatollah Mohammad Emami Kashani,
a top cleric, in his Friday prayer sermon last week.

Eager to prevent a boycott of the polls -- and therefore more questions
being raised over how the ruling clergy mix Islam and democracy -- the
jamming effort appears to be unprecedented.

"It's as if they found a huge microwave oven, opened the door and switched
it on. The microwaves are going out day and night," the technician said.

"The signals are so powerful that even other channels using the Telestar 12
satellite have been blocked in some areas of Tehran," he added.

Experts believe that while Iran may be unable to totally block the signals,
they can beam so much noise over the city's grey-brown skyline that
broadcasts suffer lengthy drop-outs.

The main targets are around six channels run by sympathisers of the ousted
monarchy. These stations, mostly based in Los Angeles, spend their time
trying to convince Iranians that the rule of the late shah, Mohammad Reza
Pahlavi, was a golden age, and that Islamic Iran isn't.

Other channels teasing the turbans include the MTV-inspired Persian Music
Channel, which shows far too much flesh for the regime's liking.

But there are also possible side effects of the battle of the frequencies.

The local signals of state television, busy trying to drum up interest in
the elections, have also suffered. The mobile telephone network, already
subject to overcrowding and poor service, is another apparent victim, given
that the coverage zone has reportedly shrunk in parts of the capital.

When reports of the jamming effort emerged two years ago in the Iranian
press, the Ministry of Post, Telegraph and Telephone (PTT) -- technically in
charge of frequency space -- pleaded innocence.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) also cautioned that such microwave
frequencies could "induce heating in body tissues which may provoke various
physiological and thermoregulatory responses, including a decreased ability
to perform mental or physical tasks as body temperature increases."

Birth defects and male infertility were also cited as possible risks.

Newspapers daringly pointed the finger at the well-equipped armed forces and
intelligence establishment, but calls from the then reformist-controlled
parliament for a government probe apparently came to nothing.

Hence a headache for viewers and -- given the circumstantial evidence of a
high prevalence of migraines -- possibly everyone else who lives in Tehran.

As one resident complained, "it's like my head has been put inside a
microwave oven".