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06.18.09

What Iranians See on TV

When Iranians turn to state-owned media, they get "reporting" far detached from their own experience. Alex Vatanka, a Middle East analyst for Jane's, on the bias and Iranians' alternative options.

Plus, read more insight on Iran's election from other Daily Beast writers.

As Iran continues to witnesses the largest ever popular mobilization against the Islamist regime, the news coverage by the country’s state-owned media remains emphatically against the protesters. The print and broadcast media that are under the control of the Iranian state, and by extension aligned with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, first ignored or underplayed the extent of the popular protests that rocked cities like Tehran, Esfahan, and Shiraz.

That stance by the official media mirrored President Ahmadinejad’s own views of the protesters. On Sunday, during a rally to celebrate his reelection, Ahmadinejad called the protesters “plain dirt that will be washed away by the river that is the Iranian nation.”

This is the stuff of David and Goliath, and the Iranian state media have so far not forgotten who represents David in this instance, given their political bosses.

Fast forward two days, and given that the intensity of the protests had only grown, continuing to ignore the protests was not only an obvious case of gross partisanship, but was also evidently deemed to be bad politics. Instead, the state media was used as part of a campaign to try to discredit the protesters while striving to, in any way possible, utilize the airways to shield Ahmadinejad and his powerful patron, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who as supreme leader has the final say in all official Iranian affairs.

No longer did the state media merely refer to the protesters as “a handful of hoodlums,” but began a drive to portray them as crafty, foreign-paid agent provocateurs with the aim of overthrowing the Islamic republic through a velvet revolution. As hundreds of politicians and activists associated with the reformist movement that is now lined up behind Mir Hossein Mousavi, the main challenger to President Ahmadinejad in the June 12, election, began to be rounded up by security and intelligence services on Monday and Tuesday, state media launched ever more colorful allegations about the reformist camp’s ties to Western powers. One newspaper even suggested that former reformist President Mohammed Khatami, an ally of Mousavi, had, only days before the protests, secretly met with an American delegation in Cairo, which Khatami then had to publicly deny. This is the stuff of David and Goliath, and the Iranian state media have so far not forgotten who represents David in this instance, given their political bosses.

Due to this blatant bias, which is by all accounts thoroughly expected by the reformist camp given three decades of media censorship in the Islamic republic, Iranians have in larger numbers than usual turned to Persian-language news providers such as BBC’s Persian Television or Voice of America’s Persian television and radio broadcasts. These alternative news providers operate from outside Iran and are beyond the control of the Iranian government, and have long had to circumvent censors with anti-filtering techniques.

These organizations make extensive use of proxies to bypass filters, and thanks to anti-jamming technologies viewers inside Iran have throughout the protests been able to follow events and also call in to these television stations with firsthand accounts. Meanwhile, listeners and viewers of these outlets have for years been encouraged to join email lists, which then act as a source of news distribution when broadcasts via satellites are electronically jammed as they were intermittently this week. Given that a total media blackout is not an option to President Ahmadinejad and his supporters in the various state organs, he is instead increasingly accusing the media outside his control as waging a “psychological war against Iran.” As things stand, and given the magnitude of the protests and the ability of alternative Persian-language news outlets to still reach the Iranian population, such a line of defense by the hardline president will most likely leave many unconvinced.

Alex Vatanka is a senior Middle East analyst for Jane’s Information Group.