Media World: How well do we understand Iran?

For Americans since 1979, Iran has been a mysterious place filled with mysterious people. That's all come to roost for the American media as it tries to cover the violence following the recent elections.

Not only are journalists dealing with government restrictions, they are dealing with a cultural divide resulting from 30 years of non-existent relations between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic. Every time relations between the two countries appear to be warming, they cool almost as quickly.

For instance, President Obama recently rescinded his invitation for Iranian diplomats to join Fourth of July celebrations at U.S. embassies and diplomatic missions. Pro-Israel groups are lobbying the U.S. government to tighten existing sanctions against Iran.

For now, many Western journalists are dependent on local translators or other staff because they don't speak the language and are not familiar with the culture. Mehdi Semati, Associate professor at Eastern Illinois University whose book Media, Culture and Society in Iran was published in 2008, told DailyFinance that foreign reporters are presenting a simplistic view of Iran. He explains why in an email interview, which has been edited:

1) How is the lack of Farsi fluency affecting the coverage of the English-speaking media?

It affects the coverage in several ways. I believe the language barrier leads the Western media to reduce a wider range of opinion and positions into a bipolar world of reformer vs. incumbent, or conservative vs. liberal. Moreover, it leads to an overemphasis on the visual dimensions of the coverage of events unfolding in Iran. It also means there is a time lag for a more complicated narrative to emerge. It is not surprising that media outlets that have reporters with Persian language fluency and a more nuanced knowledge of the country's politics are doing much better. New York Times' Nazila Fathi is one such reporter.

2) Did Iranians have a low opinion of the Iranian media before the election?

IRIB (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting), the state broadcasting entity, is the only authorized source of broadcasting in Iran. It produces many quality and highly popular entertainment programs. Its news programming has not always been credible with all audiences, especially the youth. One clear casualty of the recent election is IRIB. Even as it aired highly rated, unprecedented and electrifying debates, its partiality towards the incumbent president damaged its credibility even more. The question has been raised whether IRIB can be called national media if it refuses to give major oppositional candidates access to national audiences. What made matters worst is the coverage of the rallies and protests that ensued. Iranian TV either ignored all of it altogether, even when there were 3 million people on the streets of Tehran, or reduced them to a 'few rioters' who were pawns of the Western powers and their media. It is a sad story because IRIB is filled with talented people. That is to say, it is a question of state policy.

4) How do Iranians learn what's going on?

Many Iranians, particularly in the urban areas, supplement their media consumption, especially when it comes to news, by relying on satellite TV channels that come from outside Iran. There are more than 40 Persian-language satellite TV channels, most of which enjoy very little following because of poor programming offerings. There is an exception to this lack of popularity. BBC Persian TV, which started its operation only a few months ago, has become a major source of information in Iran. VoA has been eclipsed by BBC Persian TV because they do not appear to audiences as partisan as VoA. BBC enjoys a more established brand recognition. The election and the subsequent protests have been a rating bonanza for these channels, especially for BBC Persian TV. There are numerous foreign-language channels (BBC, CNN, and Bloomberg channels are among these channels). Language barriers mean only the elite can enjoy the foreign-language channels. Internet, online news sources, and weblogs are limited to a younger and more tech-savvy audience. The reformist press has been all but paralyzed in the present context. State's draconian measures have left little room for a serious oppositional press. IRIB's selective coverage has meant audiences go elsewhere to get their information.

5) Are U.S. reporters doing a good job covering Iran given the circumstances?

As I said earlier, the more seasoned reporters with a good knowledge of Iran and the Persian language working for print journalism are doing well. Reporters are doing OK under the circumstances. However, when it comes to television coverage there is a lot to be desired. Relying too much on the visuals and video clips of the protests has meant emphasis on drama and not enough context and explanation of the events unfolding. The obsession with new media such as Twitter has all but erased any discussion of how and why events are unfolding. In this way, sometimes media have produced media-centric discourse: the media have become the story. Some of this could be blamed on Iranian authorities' decision to block access. A more worrying development as of late is the discussions of what the US or President Obama should or should not do on some of the cable channels. At times, this tends to turn the Iranian story into an American story.

6) Is there widespread English fluency in Iran?

English is taught as a second language in schools. However, most educated Iranians' knowledge of English is rudimentary and therefore not conversant in English.

7) How widespread is broadband in Iran?

Internet penetration is believed to be about 32%. Some of this access is still dial-up. Over the past two years we have had more broadband access in the form of what Iranians call A-DSL. Different ISPs offer different speed capacities in different areas. I asked several young computer-savvy people in Iran, what does the 'A' in A-DSL stand for? They jokingly told me it stands for 'almost'! Many of the same people believe the growth of the Internet and a wider bandwidth is stunted for political reasons. Although the access is not as widespread, its impact is stronger than it would be otherwise because young people tend to be vocal and trendsetters.

8) Has the Iranian government censored social networks before now?

Yes. A social network such as orkut has been filtered previously. Facebook had been filtered but the restriction was removed in advance of the election.

9) Is the government's Internet censorship as widespread as the WSJ described?

[I don't know to which WSJ article you are referring.] There is no question that Iranian authorities have instituted a censorship regime that is very restrictive to say the least. However, Iranian youth have found ways to get around those restrictions. Some have developed software to overcome filters. However, the most popular remedy is to hide the IP address by connecting through a proxy server. The government is not in a position to shut down the Internet entirely, as it would affect other aspects of life in Iran (e.g., banking). Moreover, Internet by its very nature as a distributed network defies hierarchical control and capture.
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