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INTERVIEW: Iranian journalist comments on Iran's media, U.S. coverage of Iran

By Fariba Amini, The International Journalists' Network (IJNet) Persian Editor

Iranian journalist, media researcher and film critic Omid Habibinia is among the many journalists who have left Iran after feeling the pressure of the country's repressive atmosphere. A former employee at the Islamic Republic News Agency's TV broadcast, Seda va Sima, Habibinia currently resides in Switzerland. He has used his expertise to make ends meet, and now writes for a variety of Web sites and has a blog, Opposite Mirrors. Habibinia says he remains hopeful.

Recently, Habibinia completed a study that examines the news content and format of six different Persian Web sites that cover Iranian news in the U.S. and Europe: The BBC Persian (UK), Radio Farda (Czech Republic), Deutsche Welle (Germany), Gooya news (UK), Voice of America Persian (U.S.) and Radio Zamaneh (Netherlands).

According to his study and as illustrated in the chart below, Gooya news and Voice of America have less cultural and daily news on Iran than the BBC, Deuscthe Welle or Radio Zamaneh (the green color represents cultural news, and the orange represents political news).



In addition, Habibinia's findings highlight the importance of foreign news in Iran; each Web site examined features foreign news coverage on its front page. According to Habibinia's findings, the BBC's site is the most popular among readers, both for its content and format.

Habibinia, who also completed film study in Iran, has commented widely on other aspects of Iranian media. In 2006, in a story Habibinia wrote for Korea's Omhy news Web site titled "The Paradox of Iranian Media," he commented: "During the last 10 years, popular culture has influenced the state media more than the other way around. In Iran, more than 60 percent of urban families watch satellite TV, which forces Islamic TV (IRIB) to show more and more American and Western films and series ... As lots of scenes and parts cannot appear on Islamic TV, they change the scenario or introduce special effects to make them suitable."

Recently, Habibinia completed an extensive study called "Media and Communication in Iran: From one hundred years of press law to pornography," which gives a short history of the press in Iran since the first press law was passed some one hundred years ago.

IJNet recently had the chance to talk to this accomplished journalist about his past experiences, the state of journalism in Iran, and his reflections on the American news media.

Omid Habibinia

IJNet:  What was your experience as a journalist in Iran? What are some of the obstacles and challenges you and others faced?

Habibinia: My experience at Seda va Sima where I was in the internet division, and also at BBC Persian where I worked in the multimedia department, has proven that there are many weaknesses in Iranian news organizations' news content and form. This can be seen in many of the programs outside Iran among the Iranian Diaspora where there is a total lack of professionalism. In my opinion, programs that are run by other countries are better organized, such as BBC or Radio Farda, and to some extent Radio Zamaneh.

Most journalists in Iran have learned the profession by experience rather than by going to school. In recent times, though, we have had many journalists who have been graduates of communications schools. In Iran, journalism really means print journalism rather than other areas of the media.

IJNet: Why are you critical of the Association of Iranian Journalists, which is really the only existing organization supporting journalists?

Habibinia: In my opinion, in Iran journalists lack a comprehensive and organized entity to support them in times of need. Because of the existence of oppression and dictatorship throughout Iranian history, journalists have never been able to have a real and viable organization.

The Association of Iranian journalists, whose members were themselves in the previous government, has meetings or protests here and there. Yet, when journalists are arrested or imprisoned and there is no national entity to support them, the Association is not strong enough to take any serious steps in their support. A declaration here and there is all they do. We need a real organization that is there solely for journalists in times of need, both with financial and emotional support.

IJNet: What are some of the issues and factors that will determine the future of journalism in Iran?

Habibinia: I think the surge of young journalists in the last 7 to 8 years will end the atmosphere of conservatism that exists. Of course, like in any country where freedom of press is limited, the work of independent media is hard. All media outlets are controlled and are organs of the state apparatus.

Support from various international and journalism organizations would give a boost to journalists in Iran. Support for freedom of press and expression gives a lot of motivation to the Iranian journalists whose hands are tied and who are sometimes helpless.

IJNet: What can an organization like ICFJ do to help our fellow colleagues in Iran considering that the current atmosphere in Iran is not favorable to training or workshops?

Habibinia: Online course are extremely important. BBC has offered such courses and it has had relative success but the drawback has been that the courses were intended only for a small group of people. Online courses, if offered in a group and on specialized reporting, are very useful. Courses must emphasize new media and new journalism trends.

Iranian journalists need to learn new trends in the field, multi-media, new ways of reporting, and knowledge about different media organizations. Most reporters lack expertise in TV and radio reporting and do not have enough experience and/or training. In Iran, reporting on science, economics, international news and political news are areas that need re-enforcement.

Multi-media journalism is now a big part of journalism throughout the world. Therefore, we should focus on its strengths and weaknesses.

IJNet: As someone who lives in a Western European country, do you have criticism of the way American news media handles Iran?

Habibinia: When it comes to American newspapers, I have not personally seen a lot of good reporting. They do not know much about the country yet they write one or two articles here and there with faulty analysis. In order to write about a country you must know its history and its culture. American reporters become infatuated with one or two issues, write about them one day, and then forget them the next. One day is it infatuation and love for Khamati, the next day is hatred for Ahmadinejad ... They fly from NY to Tehran, do a story, and come back without really getting to know the real Iran!

They also take comments out of context. Several times, I was contacted and my comments were misinterpreted. When journalists go to Iran , instead of talking to the common people, they just talk to one or two officials and think that is the whole story. Their reportage is cosmetic, not really in-depth, but fragmented. In my opinion and from what I have seen, they cover what is chic today.

IJNet: What can be done to ameliorate the situation?

Habibinia: More than a million Iranians live in the U.S. and Iran is a very interesting subject for Americans. For over 50 years, we have seen good and bad relations between our two countries.  I would like to see a better rapport between Iranian and American reporters. The point is: At the end of the day, Americans and Iranians get along just fine with or without their idiotic and stubborn governments.

... Payvand News - 03/06/08 ... --

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