Fragile regimes suppress news from Iran
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.These regimes use repression because they would not survive in a consensual government. They have to use the police powers of the state to stay in power and they have no inhibitions about using it brutally to suppress those who disagree with it. It is still possible to govern by intimidation, but it does not result in a strong state. You can see the paranoia on display in Iran as leaders blame the US or British for their people being angry with them.
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.
There has been a real lesson in the problems with a phony democracy. It is getting harder to pull that off.