A rare protest by Iranians against their government’s use of broadcast jamming equipment is bringing global attention to growing concerns about the health impact of the practice.
Dozens of residents of the southern Iranian city of Shiraz joined the protest January 9, rallying outside the headquarters of the governor of Fars province, of which Shiraz is the capital. Participants sent a video of the protest to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a U.S. government-funded network supervised by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which also oversees VOA.
RFE/RL reported that the protesters blamed the government’s local jamming operations for a series of health problems suffered by residents, from headaches to cancer. Some chanted, “Jamming is betrayal of the people,” while others said good health is an “inalienable right.”
Iran’s Islamist government has long jammed Persian-language broadcasts by Western news organizations such as VOA, RFE/RL and the BBC to try to stop its people from watching them. Some jamming equipment uses electromagnetic waves that critics say are the cause of the health problems.
Former Iranian lawmaker Ali-Akbar Mousavi, who investigated jamming while serving from 2000 to 2003, and who now lives in the United States, told VOA one factor that raised the alarm of the Shiraz protesters was Iran’s deputy health minister Reza Malekzadeh making remarks about a link between jamming and public health.
In an article published December 22, 2016, Iran’s state-run news agency IRNA quoted Malekzadeh as saying “preliminary studies” indicated that electromagnetic jamming signals can increase the risk of cancer. He gave no further detail on the studies that he cited. IRNA said Malekzadeh was speaking on the sidelines of a cancer research event in Shiraz.
Iran’s Financial Tribune newspaper says Iranian Health Minister Hassan Ghazizadeh Hashemi later downplayed his deputy’s remarks. It quoted Hashemi as saying his ministry still lacked “strong scientific evidence to prove that jamming can enhance the risk of cancer or exacerbate health problems.”
The World Health Organization says scientific literature “does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low-level electromagnetic fields.” The U.N. body also said “some gaps in knowledge about biological effects exist, and need further research.”
Iranian social media users shared their thoughts about the jamming controversy with the VOA Persian Service’s New Horizon program Tuesday.
Some who commented on the program’s Facebook and Instagram pages complained of headaches and other health issues that they blamed on government jamming in Shiraz. One noted that jamming of foreign programs had decreased in recent days and his health had improved, while another said jamming appeared to have increased in part of the city.
In an email to VOA, Mousavi, who served as vice chair of the Iranian parliament’s information and communications technology (ICT) committee, said he had seen many reports of Iranian lawmakers and civil society members speaking out in recent years against the government’s jamming activities.
“My colleagues and I raised the same concerns [about jamming] as members of the sixth Iranian parliament and succeeded in stopping it through public pressure,” he said. “Unfortunately, the government started jamming again when [former President] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power [in 2005].”
Jamming, the practice of deliberate interference with broadcast signals, is prohibited under rules of the International Telecommunications Union, of which Iran is a member.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani issued a Citizens’ Rights Charter last month, stating that: “Citizens have the right to freely and without discrimination enjoy access to and communicate and obtain information and knowledge from cyberspace.”
The document says the “imposition of any type of restriction (such as filtering, interference, speed reduction and network interruption) without explicit legal authority is prohibited.” It is not clear if the prohibition applies to jamming of foreign broadcasts.
Mousavi said he expects domestic criticism of jamming to continue until the Iranian government stops what he called an illegal practice.
VOA’s Persian service contributed to this report.