The Civilized Monster: Iran and Pinochet

Under Pinochet, the Chilean government used its power to fabricate news to suit its own needs. Are these techniques resurfacing in today’s Iran?

During the hot summer days of 2009, people in Iran who were demonstrating against the disputed reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were shouting an interesting slogan: "Seyed Ali Pinochet, Iran won't be like Chile." They substituted the name of the Iranian supreme leader for that of the former Chilean dictator to emphasize their demand that state oppression could not continue.

After two years of demonstrations, the Iranian government succeeded in cracking down on the 2009 uprising and imprisoned most of the opposition. But all of these limitations were not enough to control the entire society. Still, something was wrong outside Iran. After the uprising, broadcasts from BBC Persian, VOA Persian, and Free Europe Radio Persian became the most reliable news sources for Iranians inside the country. As research has shown, BBC Persian's audience in Iran almost doubled after 2009. The result was the attempt by the Iranian government to try and limit access to these satellite channels through jamming transmissions.

Iran: The News Factory

While censorship was not an effective long-term solution for controlling mass information, the Iranian government found a new trick to fix the problem in January 2013. Cyber activists linked to the regime fabricated news, duplicated Facebook accounts, and spread false allegations of sexual misconduct by exiled journalists.

The fabrication of nonexistent facts is a step that goes beyond censorship. It is an attempt not only to control information, but also to impose a narrative that can be favorable to the government's agenda.

One of the most controversial cases of fake news creation during this year was a counterfeit website copying BBC Persian, using the same design as the original, that was launched with domestic and foreign fabricated stories, which contained frames and angles in favor of the Iranian government.

Before that, the Iranian government claimed that they sent a monkey into space aboard an indigenous bio-capsule. After traveling to an altitude of 120km, Iranian National TV showed videos of the monkey arriving perfectly alive back to earth. But later, doubt was raised over the authenticity of the story. Many sources outside Iran admitted it was not just one monkey, but two: one was sent into space and probably died during the journey, while the other was waiting on earth to be paraded before an audience as the space explorer.

Five years before that event, on July 9, 2008, Iran’s state media broadcasted pictures and videos showing the test-fire of the Shahabe-3 missile that had a range of 2,000km — capable of reaching Israel. The news immediately sent oil prices into a steep climb. The image of four missiles being tested appeared on international websites and news networks, including the Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times, the Chicago Tribune, and other news sites. But later experts’ analysis revealed that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard added an extra missile to the picture, so the image was not real.

It is true that in the modern world, dictators cannot control information flow like the days before the internet era and satellite communications. But they can now also create their own alternative stories. This type of “censorship” was easier to conduct three decades ago, when the Pinochet dictatorship controlled all of Chile's media.

Chile: Unreal Reality

On September 11, 1973, two Hawker Hunter planes flew over La Moneda, the government palace in Chile, dropping bombs that made the walls that housed the country's democratic tradition tear into pieces. That was the last day of government for the first democratically elected socialist president, Salvador Allende.

The same day, the Governing Board of the Chilean Armed Forces, led by the new dictator Augusto Pinochet, prohibited the publication of all newspapers, with the exception of El Mercurio and La Tercera, the owners of which were favorable to the coup. As in Iran, the first step was to control the silence; the next would be to impose their voice to create a new reality.

A document issued on September 11 outlines the creation of the Office of Censorship of the Press, which was named as the National Communications Direction under the General Secretary of the Government. This office had the task of checking both newspapers sent by the directors of each media outlet, before their distribution. Four days later, on September 15, a new statement issued by the Governing Board prohibited printing and distributing any type of material that could be "subversive propaganda contrary to the Supreme Government."

During the first years after the coup there was still an atmosphere of tension and civil war in Chile, with opposition groups who felt that weapons were a viable option for overthrowing the dictatorship. One of them was the Revolutionary Left Movement. Between May 27, 1974, and February 20, 1975, 119 opposition activists, mainly members of Revolutionary Left Movement, were arrested by the military as part of a plan known as the Colombo Operation. All of them were killed.

On April 14 of the same year, a new edition of the O'Dia newspaper was launched in Brazil. The last time the paper was printed was 52 years before, and now the name included the word “novo.” This Novo O'Dia, appeared again on May 31 and a third edition on June 25, 1975. The last issue detailed the disappearance of 59 of the 119 detainees. The paper argued that they died in a gun battle against the Argentinean Army in the city of Salta as part of a revolutionary strategy for the rest of the continent.

Almost a month later, on July 15, a new magazine appeared in Argentina, which had just one issue in its whole existence: Lea. Some 20,000 copies were printed in order to deliver only one story: 60 revolutionaries who opposed Pinochet were murdered in a fight between each other, as a consequence of internal squabbles within the group. The 59 revolutionaries of the Brazilian publication, plus the 60 mentioned in the Argentinian paper, explained to the international public the whereabouts of the 119 missing people.

Both publications were financed by the Chilean State — in the case of Novo O'Dia through the Chilean Embassy in Brazil and in complicity with the national airline LAN — while Lea was developed with the complicity of the Argentinean Ministry of Social Welfare. The next step of the disinformation plan was to spread the stories inside Chile. The strategy of first positioning the publications in an international arena was to support the facts that were going to be published inside the country, without using the regime as the official source.

On July 23, 1975, UPI news agency issued a press release, whose source of information was the Argentinean magazine Lea, that gave an account for the deaths of opposition activists and their mutual extermination. On the same day, the story was published by Las Últimas Noticias (owned by El Mercurio) and La Tercera. Further shocking was the reaction of La Segunda (also owned by El Mercurio) that published the headline: "Exterminated like rats."

LATIN news agency decided to research the subject, and its findings forced El Mercurio to recognize in an editorial column that the militants never set a foot on Argentinean soil. The piece, dating back to August 9, 1975, was contradicted by a subsequent publication on August 31 by a new explanation given over the death of the militants — this time in a revolutionary battle in Tucuman, Argentina. Even more extreme was La Segunda’s correction: after claiming they died like rats, on November 13, the newspaper announced that the 119 missing people were actually alive and "in good health."

What would have happened if online social networks had existed at the time? If siblings, relatives, friends, and acquaintances of the detainees had cell phones and computers — to counter what the newspapers were publishing. An approximation to this response can be found in Iran.

One Simple Word

The lack of freedom of speech and free media does not only lead to false information for the audience inside Iran, it could easily have a profound correlation with the expectation and observation of foreigners.

In February 7, 2013, Gallup published the result of a survey that was conducted from December 16, 2012, to January 10, 2013, which stated: “The majority of Iranians are so far seemingly willing to pay the high price of sanctions. Sixty-three percent say that Iran should continue to develop its nuclear program.” The report said that the results were based on telephone interviews with 1,000 adults inside Iran.

Anyone who knows the social situation in Iran would confirm that people do not talk freely on the phone. Even before the 2009 uprising, there was a strong belief that the Iranian government monitors phone conversations. During the 2009 uprising, Nokia Siemens Networks stated that they had provided lawful interception equipment and services to Iran, capable of monitoring local voice calls.

It was later revealed that Chinese and western companies did the same, collaborating with the government to spy on its citizens. With these facts, how could a highly political issue like sanctions against Iran and its nuclear program be a topic for a survey that is based on phone interviews?

The manipulation of information in Iran also has a social effect. Before the 2009 election, while the government was conducting different polls about the electoral process, people lied because they thought that telling the truth would prevent the regime from assessing the real mood of the electorate — so the opposition candidate could win the election. It was a lesson learnt from the 1997 election, when reformists gained power while no one — even them — could believe it.

Just nine years earlier, Chile had a unique experience. A country under a dictatorship where people finally had a chance to openly say what they thought of the totalitarian regime, and thereby define its continuity. In 1988, a plebiscite was called, which had only two options: “Yes” or “No.” The first answer designated the agreement to Pinochet remaining in charge of the country, legitimizing the figure of the leader as president until March 11, 1997; the second meaning the end of the dictatorship and access to presidential and parliamentary elections.

Against the predictions of the regime, with the support of a creative communication campaign by the opposition, the majority chose the “No” option and Pinochet was forced to resign. One of the reasons for the campaign’s victory was due to a free advertising campaign on TV. Informative and often provoking programs pushed many people to take an active position to try and change the system. As we can see from the result, they were successful.

In Iran, the same process had begun, but it ended in a different way. During the 2009 presidential campaign, social media, cell phones and websites were used as the Green Movement’s main means for confronting Ahmadinejad. At the time, the Green Movement could not freely use state media, which was under the control of the conservatives and Ahmadinejad’s campaign team.

After the 2009 election’s result was out and demonstrations started in Iran, again, the social networks and websites had a crucial role in mobilizing people. These networks, in the absence of foreign correspondents in Iran, were also the main source for international news media. But Iran's brutal crackdown on demonstrations and mass arrests have turned the country back to the situation that Chile faced after the 1973 coup.

*[Note: The authors wish to remain anonymous and have used pseudonyms.]

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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