By Jafar Farshian, Tehran (Source: Mianeh)
The first anniversary of Iran's controversial presidential election passed fairly uneventfully this month, with crowds of protesters in Tehran much smaller than the opposition had hoped for. For many observers, this suggested the opposition movement had reached a dead end. This view is, however, mistaken.
For many of us living in Iran, though, June 21 had another sense - the hope that we might put to rest the narrative presented by many international pundits, a story of betrayal and hopelessness, and replace it with a realistic, constructive debate that addresses the core issues that are going to define life in the Islamic Republic for the foreseeable future.
As the anniversary reports began appearing, many who lived through the election and the months of unrest that followed were transported back to a time of extremes: exhilaration and fear, hope and anguish. These themes were skilfully captured by the heroic journalists, photographers and everyday Iranians who risked their lives to share stories and images with the world. Many were arrested at the time and dozens still languish in Iranian prisons.
Yet when one scans online news sites for reports on "Iran one year later", the trained eye detects a disturbing trend that needs to be exposed - activists posing as journalists and analysts. The distinction between journalism and activism in Iran has never been a clear one, so the talking heads may be forgiven for sowing confusion and focusing myopically on the activists, a subset of Iranian society.
But it is time to hold them to account, or else risk lose all sense of perspective on the real situation in Iran.
Over the past 12 months, countless erroneous reports have come out of Iran. Some of them appear to have all the hallmarks of deliberate fabrication.
In the early days of the protests, for example, there were the reports that the pro-regime security forces included Arabic speakers, presumably from abroad. Later, there was the supposed civil disobedience movement in which millions of Iranian currency notes were said to have been defaced with opposition slogans. Other examples are the so-called "Baharestan Square Massacre", and the reports that 20,000 protestors were arrested on February 11 at the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. These later proved to be fraudulent.
Aside from specific events, or in this case non-events, there is an even more disconcerting trend, that of using sweeping generalisations and highly charged language to describe Iran, in the style of Cold War reporting. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for example, was often compared with history's greatest villains, like Adolf Hitler.
Instead of setting out the complex political drama that has taken place in the last past year, such reports have perpetuated the simplistic narrative of good versus evil that has characterised coverage of Iran since the Islamic Republic came into being in 1979. This has meant that gaping deficiencies in the opposition's strategies and overall platform are ignored, while the government is portrayed not only as illegitimate and irrational, but also impossible to deal with. This latter is an unfortunate error, as some leaders within Iran seem more than willing than ever to open up a full dialogue with the United States.
As difficult as Iran is to report from, there are still numerous journalists working there, many of them openly opposed to the Ahmadinejad government. The number of journalists of Iranian origin working abroad is even higher.
There is therefore no adequate excuse for the disproportionally high level of propaganda that passes for journalism about Iran.
For years, Iranian reporters have been granted a free pass to publish whatever they like in the western press. Without effective ways of verifying sources or checking facts properly, the attitude of western press has been to take whatever they get from journalists in Iran. This approach, coupled with the perception that persecuted Iranian activists find it easy to relocate to the West, has created seductive opportunities for those willing to take a few risks. The perfect environment for rampant opportunism, and the emergence of an Iranian version of Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass, the American reporters notorious for faking stories.
Journalism in Iran is a young person's game. Grizzled editors and seasoned beat reporters are few and far between. In their place are fresh faces full of ideals, courage and also ego. Many have developed a flair for the dramatic.
Who can blame them? In Iran, the practice of journalism is a hazardous occupation that has become progressively more dangerous over the last year.
The number of stories about Iran has risen exponentially over the past year, and although western newspapers and other publications are often content to report from outside the country, they have developed a taste for tapping expatriate Iranians for their knowledge of the society. Enter the self-proclaimed expert-in-exile.
In the past, this category was an eclectic grouping, most of whose members could be commended for their moral stance. The post-election environment, however, created the conditions for an exodus of the mediocre. We might expect this more of other groups, such as those with political aspirations. But for better or worse, journalists have long provided us with a trusted link to places, events and trends that we cannot reach ourselves.
That trust is slowly being eroded as major international media outlets comply in spreading intellectually lazy, sensationalist and self-indulgent material.
This is all the more sad given that one of the early products of post election media coverage was a new awareness about the people of Iran. This should have blossomed into a more balanced dialogue about the struggles facing Iranians. Instead, the coverage has been polarised by reactionary forces. On the one hand, we have endless stories about the nuclear dispute, and on the other, highly personalised accounts of what a miserable place Iran is to live in, a place where terror reigns.
Iran is far from an ideal place to live, but it is not the country depicted in these attempts to garner sympathy.
I have met several journalists both in Iran and abroad who, when asked about the veracity of their reports, admit to exaggerating their claims. They take the attitude that the Iranian state's propaganda machine is so strong that it needs to be countered with equally damaging reports of infamy.
Such attitudes never made much sense, but they do so even less now, when it is essential for westerners to have an accurate grasp of the situation in Iran. Lack of understanding has meant that the challenge of shaping a long-term foreign policy on Iran has eluded US administrations for three decades, with no solution in sight.
This sort of storytelling can be counterproductive. For years, Iranian exiles have raged about the autocratic police state, yet it has never been autocratic - there have always been competing factions and public dissent. The country has developed facets of a police state, but that happened many years after it was branded as such by people with no experience of totalitarianism.
Whatever position one takes, there is, for the first time, plenty of media space available to discuss a range of views on Iran, its domestic affairs, and its relations with the rest of the world. It is time to use the resources available to develop the story, rather than focusing simply on headlines and subjective conclusions.
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.
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