By Majid Mohammadi, New York (Source: Mianeh)
Perhaps not surprisingly given the ballot results, there were two distinct narratives running through western media coverage of the recent Iranian presidential election.
The first of these narratives ran for a week or thereabouts right up until election day, June 12.
Most of the international correspondents had arrived in Tehran by then, and were filing stories highlighting the Iranian voters' enthusiasm for various candidates, and also the warm welcome the government had extended to foreign media.
The Iranian authorities presumably wanted to try to prove there was such a thing as "theocratic democracy". They were keen to see a strong turnout and a lot of media coverage in order to demonstrate their own legitimacy and strong electoral support for the government's policies and hard-line stance against the West.
For their part, foreign reporters and their outlets were excited to have an opportunity to report from inside the Islamic Republic and to see stereotypical images of Iran and Iranians so challenged.
Iran was much more than just President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the narrative ran. Correspondents instead conveyed a hopeful mood in a country of diverse opinions:
For the first time in more than a decade, Iran was given a human face.
At that point, there were no complaints from the Iranian authorities about the role played by foreign media. Nor were there any allegations that foreign governments were trying to interfere with the vote or political campaigning.
The trouble began when Ahmadinejad was declared the winner by a huge margin the day after the election, and opposition candidates alleged massive irregularities and fraud.
The results were announced in huge blocks of votes and in percentages, as opposed to the region-by-region breakdown given in previous elections.
Protests began building on the streets after the leading reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi asked the Guardian Council, which adjudicates on electoral matters, to declare the result invalid.
Foreign reporters who had been expecting a close-run vote were shocked to find themselves reporting on rallies and demonstrations instead. Mass arrests alongside a state-organised media and cell-phone blackout added to the heightened sense of concern.
The Iranian government wanted to pretend that the 40 million people who participated in the election had backed the regime. It did not want to see a mass protest action on the streets of Tehran, with complaints of stolen elections beamed around the world by the visiting press corps.
According to Tehran's mayor, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, up to three million people came out onto the streets of Tehran on Sunday, June 14. Taken by surprise, the authorities and ordered foreign journalists to stay in their hotels and to make plans to leave as soon as possible.
The international media's collective narrative changed, and it did so just as official Iranian pronouncements shifted to claims that the protests were neither spontaneous nor home-grown; that they were in fact led by the West, the United States and Britain in particular.
Forced to remain in their hotels and later to leave the country, western journalists were left reliant on so-called citizen journalism and the likes of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social networking sites, making verification a constant problem.
Despite the massive and immediate demand for images and clips, there was no quick or easy way to check sources and verify information, and media outlets were left broadcasting things as they came in. Equally, internet chat rooms and bloggers were awash with claims that an official picture taken at a pro-Ahmadinejad rally had been doctored using Photoshop to make it look far bigger than it actually was.
The softly-softly approach taken by western leaders - who were all too aware of how a hasty intervention in the dispute could play into the hands of the hardliners and help undermine the protestors - meant that the media soon became overly reliant upon unverifiable information and other chatter to fill their schedules.
Yet the mainstream media had spent the first few days after the election trying to project different sides of the story: A number of media outlets in the United States and Europe questioned the claims of ballot-rigging made by opposition candidates, and when there were protests against western based Persian-language media outlets such as BBC Persian TV, participants were given time to air their concerns.
Some Persian-language media based in the West were slow to suggest that Iran's top senior religious leaders were complicit in dismissing if not actually covering up the alleged election fraud.
The BBC Persian Service did not directly focus on the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or his office until Friday prayers of June 19, when he warned protesters to stay off the streets and said opposition candidates would be held responsible for any violence.
As is the case in Iran's state-run domestic media, Khamenei was portrayed abroad as the most powerful person in the country, but with no real responsibilities. It seemed as if nobody wanted to suggest the Supreme Leader had played any role in the election or bore any responsibility for the results or the events that followed.
Yet this did not stop the Iranian authorities from accusing the Persian services of the BBC and Voice of America of interfering in the country's internal affairs.
Even with the opposition press banned, journalists arrested, websites filtered, text messaging blocked, cell phones shut down and foreign reporters ordered out of the country, the government continued to blame western media for the unrest, as if they were the advance guard for some grand international conspiracy.
About the author: Majid Mohammadi teaches humanities and sociology. He is the author of more than two dozen books on Iran and has a particular interest in political Islam, judicial reform, and social movements.
About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (iwpr.net) the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic society that is Iran today.
... Payvand News - 07/06/09 ... --