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Authoritarian Regimes Censor News From Iran

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 27, 2009

BEIJING -- Out of fear that history might repeat itself, the authoritarian governments of China, Cuba and Burma have been selectively censoring the news this month of Iranian crowds braving government militias on the streets of Tehran to demand democratic reforms.

Between 1988 and 1990, amid a lesser global economic slump, pro-democracy protests that appeared to inspire and energize one another broke out in Eastern Europe, Burma, China and elsewhere. Not all evolved into full-fledged revolutions, but communist regimes fell in a broad swath of countries, and the global balance of power shifted.

A similar infectiousness has shown up in subtle acts of defiance by democracy advocates around the world this week.

In China, political commentators tinted their blogs and Twitters green to show their support for Iranians disputing President Ahmoud Ahmadinejad's reelection. The deaths of at least 20 people in violent clashes in Tehran have drawn comparisons online to "June 4," the date of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing in 1989. And a pointed joke about how Iranians are luckier than Chinese because sham elections are better than no elections made the rounds on the country's vast network of Internet bulletin boards.

"The Iranian people face the same problems as us: news censorship and no freedom to have their own voices," 28-year-old blogger Zhou Shuguang said in a telephone interview from the inland province of Hunan. Zhou said he and several friends were among those who had colored their online pictures green, the signature color of the Iranian opposition.

In Cuba, President Raúl Castro's government has imposed a complete blackout of news surrounding the Iranian elections. But word of developments is trickling through, anyway.

Havana-based blogger Yoani Sánchez, 33, who e-mails friends outside Cuba to get her entries posted online, said the Iranian protests -- in particular, the reportedly widespread use of Twitter, Facebook and cellphones -- have served as "a lesson for Cuban bloggers."

"Seeing those young Iranians use all the technology to denounce the injustice, I notice everything that we lack to support those who maintain blogs from the island," Sánchez wrote. "The acid test of our incipient virtual community has not yet arrived, but maybe it will surprise us tomorrow."

"Today it's you," she told the Iranian protesters in one posting. "Tomorrow it could well be us."

In Burma, the junta's mouthpiece, the New Light of Myanmar, has drowned out news from Tehran with articles on bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan. But some of the nearly 200 journals published privately in Rangoon and Mandalay have seized on the topic as a way to pass subversive messages to readers.

"What we, the private media, are trying to do was to put in as much stories and pixs of what's going on in Teheran in our papers. So far we were successful," the editor of a Rangoon-based weekly publication said in an e-mail. "The upcoming paper of mine . . . will carry, albeit if it's not censored, news stories of the events in Teheran and a feature on 'Elections and Democracy,' trying to draw some parallels between the one in Iran and the upcoming one here," a reference to elections, scheduled for 2010, that many critics dismiss as a sham.

Unlike in Iran, however, the experience of past failed protests has yielded a measure of pragmatism in Burma. Overtly political opposition groups, such as Generation Wave, and numerous apolitical networks have in recent months focused on a more evolutionary strategy of change, reaching out in particular to Burma's rural masses.

"We cannot go directly to our goal," said a graphic designer who co-founded a group that teaches social management and governance in Rangoon and remote towns under the cover of English classes.

Moe Thway, founder of Generation Wave, said Iran's citizens do not appear to be as depressed or despairing as Burma's. Even the most hard-bitten Burmese activists see little hope in taking to the streets for now.

"About Iran, I can't say whether their current movement will change the political trend or not," he said. "Iran and our Burma are still different."

In Venezuela, a South American country that is increasingly polarized, protests against President Hugo Chávez's administration are common. Juan Mejía, 22, said he found the protests in Iran stirring, partly because he felt that opponents of the government in Tehran want the same thing as protesters in Caracas.

"The fact that people have gone out onto the street, that they demand their rights be respected, means to us that they felt there was no liberty and that they want a different country," said Mejía, a student leader who opposes Chávez. "We believe that if the people of the world raise their voices loudly enough -- in Iran, as we do it here in Venezuela, and hopefully one day in Cuba -- then surely we will have a better world."

Venezuela, as opposed to countries such as Cuba and China, holds frequent elections, and dissent remains a part of the political discourse. But in a decade in power, Chávez has taken control of the Congress, the courts and the state oil company, and his opponents charge that he is a dictator in the making.

In China, the Communist Party's propaganda machine has worked furiously to portray the protests in Iran -- already being dubbed the Green Revolution, after the Rose and Orange revolutions earlier this decade in Georgia and Ukraine -- as orchestrated by the United States and other Western powers, not a grass-roots movement. Unlike Western leaders, who have avoided acknowledging Ahmadinejad's claims of victory, President Hu Jintao joined Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev in meeting with and congratulating the Iranian president.

On online discussion boards this week, tens of thousands of comments about Iran were shown as deleted; most of those allowed to remain took the official party line on the elections.

China's main message has been that this vulnerable period, with the world hit by the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, is no time for a "color revolution."

"Attempts to push the so-called color revolution toward chaos will prove very dangerous," the state-run China Daily said in a recent editorial.

The Chinese government has been especially aggressive this year in cracking down on talk of democracy because 2009 is full of politically sensitive anniversaries. In the most recent move, officials announced Tuesday the formal arrest of Liu Xiaobo, an influential dissident who had helped draft and sign a pro-democracy petition known as Charter 08.

Albert Ho, chairman of the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group in Hong Kong, said he sees many parallels between the situation in Iran and the atmosphere in China, citing many "hot spots" on the mainland that could explode into violent protests at any time.

"This time, the dark dictatorship has won, but I don't feel hopeless," Ho said of Iran. "On the contrary, I see more clearly that there is hope. I used to think, in such a totalitarian country, people had no hope for democracy. But I can see not only students but people from all different classes, even very low-class men and women, all have such a strong will for democracy, and they fight together for taking down the cheated election."

In contrast, Li Datong, a Beijing-based pro-democracy writer who was fired from his job in China's state media after publishing a piece on censorship on the Internet, said democratic change will come more gradually and peacefully in China.

"Young people might be excited about what happened in Iran now, but not me -- a 57-year-old one who has witnessed dramatic change in China. I think the cultivation of democratic elements within a society is more important and practical," Li said, mentioning the increased acceptance of public accountability and the growth of civil society groups in recent years.

Some democracy advocates in China said that even if the Iranian protesters fail in their calls for legitimate elections this time, their fight will inspire others, as similar uprisings -- in Burma in 1988 and at Tiananmen Square the next year, for example -- have done in the past.

The iconic image of the Iranian protests may be the chilling video, filmed on a cellphone camera, of Neda Agha Soltan, the 26-year-old woman who died on the streets of Tehran minutes after being struck by a bullet.

"Democracy won't come by the charity of the governing class," someone from the city of Suzhou, in the eastern province of Jiangsu, wrote about Agha Soltan on an online message board. "Fighting is the only way to gain democracy. . . . People are doomed to be slaves unless they are willing to sacrifice their blood."

Correspondent Juan Forero in Caracas, special correspondent Karla Adam in London, a staff writer in Washington and researchers Zhang Jie, Wang Juan and Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.

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