June 17, 2009
Media = Freedom?
Pete Wehner has a post at the Commentary blog comparing Iran in 2009 to the Soviet Union of the 1980’s which, of course, is completely ridiculous. I visited Russia back in the day and I’ve now visited Iran twice. There is no comparison. The Soviet Union was the most repressive place I’ve ever been; its residents lived in constant terror. I’ll never forget my first translator in Moscow telling me that his parents had trained him never to smile in public—it could easily be misinterpreted and then he’d be off to the Gulag. There was no internet in those days, no cellphones, no facebook or twitter.
Iran, by contrast, is breezy with freedom. It is certainly freer now, despite Ahmadinejad, than it was when I first visited in 2001. There are satellites dishes all over the place, which bring accurate news via BBC Persia and the Voice of America. The place is awash in western music, movies and books. The Supreme Leader has a website; ayatollahs are blogging. You can get the New York Times and CNN online. (I was interested to find, however, that most blogs except those, like this one, that are associated with a mainstream media outlet, are filtered by the government.) There is, in fact, marginally more freedom of expression in Iran than in some notable U.S. allies, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia—although the danger of imprisonment always exists if a journalist or politician takes it a step too far for the Supreme Leader’s watchdogs.
I wonder, though — to what extent can media consumption, or even production, be a proxy for (or index of) material freedom? I mean, the reformists in Iran are actually fighting FOR a loosening of some of the more oppressive restrictions. In particular, women almost certainly had more day-to-day freedoms (apart from media consumption) under the USSR then they do in present-day Iran.
I appreciate Klein’s point here, and trust me — I don’t in any way underestimate the power of the free circulation of information as constitutive of some degree of liberty. I just worry when people who deal in information - especially journalists - confuse the freedom of information with freedom as such. (Klein’s B-story about the two states, which explains the likelihood of getting imprisoned for arbitrary reasons or dissent - is way more relevant.)