In an Internet survey conducted on July 3, 2012 by Iranian state television’s Shabakeye Khabar (News Network), 63 percent of respondents said that they would like to see a stop to uranium enrichment activity in order to halt sanctions against the country. The results of this survey were made available on the website for some time (see graphic below) before being replaced with another survey later that day on the closure of the Strait of Hormuz. In this second survey, 89 percent of respondents disagreed with the closure of the strategic shipping lane. This result was also promptly removed from the website of News Network on July 5 and replaced with a more benign questionnaire about football. The survey results are significant because the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) has strict guidelines regarding the “publication of politically sensitive information”, particularly regarding the country’s nuclear program. The publication of negative public opinion on these contentious topics, especially by a government-supported news agency, is therefore unprecedented in Iran.
Later that day, News Network released a statement claiming that their website had been hacked, “likely under orders from the British government”, and suggested that the high number of respondents in favour of halting uranium enrichment activity and against the potential closure of the Strait of Hormuz shows that the survey results were “falsified”.
There are two key points of interest within this news story.
- Given that News Network is a state-sponsored news agency, it is likely that the website is accessed for news purposes primarily by people in Iran who cannot access independent or foreign news sources. If the survey results are legitimate, then they demonstrate a significant lack of support for the Islamic government’s current policies.
- Once News Network realized that a number of international news agencies had picked up the survey results, they were quick to explain that the survey results were “falsified” because they fell victim to a cyber attack planned by BBC News. However, they did not provide any evidence to support this claim.
Whether or not this was in fact a cyber-attack, this event provides an example of a government-backed news source defying censorship requirements from the IRIB. Further, if sensitive news stories are accidentally released, this example demonstrates how such stories can be dismissed with claims that they have been hacked, all without providing supporting evidence. It is possible that if someone within Iran’s government-supported media networks wanted to share certain information with the Iranian public against the orders of the government, they could do so by claiming it was a result of hacking.