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By Kourosh Ziabari
It is difficult to give a vivid picture of Iran’s media and their popularity through figures and statistics. Few studies have been done in this regard, and Iran’s media, including state TV broadcasters and radio stations, newspapers, news agencies and online publications have hardly been successful in surpassing their London or Los Angeles-based competitors in satisfying the varying needs of their audience and their thirst for professional coverage, honesty, fair and accurate reporting and “good news.”
It is arguable that Iran’s media have failed the test of legitimacy, as excessive intervention on behalf of the government to manipulate the media content and influence their coverage is known to the majority of Iranians, whether it be those who rely only on domestic broadcasters for their “need to know” on a daily basis or those sporadically watch Iranian TV skeptically while nodding in regret.
Whether it is the penchant of the government to create a society in which all citizens think and behave similarly and monolithically and view things through the same eyes, which is a characteristic of ideological governments, or the longstanding problem of Iranian society with concepts such as freedom and liberty, which are now alien concepts, it is crystal clear that an ideal instance of “Iranian media” is yet to be born. Some 30 local TV broadcasters, thousands of newspapers published daily and circulated in millions, hundreds of news websites and international broadcasters such as Press TV find themselves unable to function as the face of “Iranian media” to be able to appeal to the highly-selective and nitpicking Iranian audience.
BBC Persian and Voice of America and a few other TV stations based outside Iran, which are not hesitant in featuring themselves as the “opposition” to the Iranian government, are the most-watched and popular, but even these media organizations are somewhat unable to maintain balance in coverage and easily stray into angry and harsh criticisms of what happens inside Iran lopsidedly, which detaches them from their main responsibility: to inform and enlighten realistically.
While the Iranian media run from overseas, including BBC Persian and other Farsi-speaking TV stations dedicate the majority of their airing time to political talk shows and news bulletins discussing their guests’ interpretation of political, economic and social developments related to Iran, they similarly invest on creating programs only to satisfy their audience’s need for fun and entertainment: music, dance, teleplay, talent shows, dramas, sitcoms, documentaries, reality shows and other programs with lighter contents. These are almost totally missing in Iran’s state media, which devote long hours to airing boring speeches and addresses of the officials, one-sided talk shows and partisan content.
These failures have made the Iranian audience suspicious towards the state media. Why do the majority of Iranians consider the state TV, newspapers and publications representative of the government’s views and not that of themselves?
A noted Iranian scholar, Negar Mottahedeh, believes that what is happening in Iranian media today is not unprecedented: “Iran’s national media has historically been unresponsive to the voices of ordinary people. National media blackouts happened immediately after the Revolution, in the March 1979, during the women’s protests, during a period in other words, when the nation had supposedly liberated itself.”
“In the Iran protests of 2017-2018, we saw new tactics being engaged by various institutions and bodies intent on manipulating the media landscape— fake images, fake amateur videos, historical inaccuracies were generated to agitate ordinary citizens. This is a global phenomenon, the result of what Henry Jenkins calls ‘participatory culture.’ Fake news is the travesty of mass access to digital technologies and the viral circulation of content,” she said in a brief interview with Stony Brook Independent.
Dr Negar Motaheddeh is a professor of film and media studies in the Program in Literature at Duke University.
Jawad Sukhanyar, an Afghan reporter and journalist and an East-West Center‘s Senior Journalists Seminar alumnus holds a similar view about the Iranian media.
“As far as I understand, the freedom of speech and media in Iran is repressed by the state. People cannot have their free thoughts expressed if what they say clashes with the state’s interests. Media have no freedom because they cannot object the government policies, even if the objection or criticism is constructive,” he said.
“The words like ‘responsible freedom’ and ‘freedom within the framework of the law’ mean media can do nothing without state’s approval. It is very hard to get independent voices coming out of Iran. It seems to us like the media’s work is under constant monitoring. I wouldn’t even say it is censorship alone but an absolute restriction over media inside Iran. This is how we see it,” he added.
Sukhanyar who reports for the New York Times from Kabul says the situation in Afghanistan has changed dramatically following the expulsion of Taliban and media are breathing easily: “… one of the greatest achievements Afghanistan has made is the free media, thanks to the generous and constant support of the international community, which gave us the opportunity to have a free media.”
“To be honest I can say the Afghan media is as free as most western media. There is no censorship imposed by the government when it comes to publishing news. Anyone can start a media outlet within the framework of the business. So to conclude, our media has increasingly developed over the past years. But the continuous war in some parts of the country is threatening our freedom. That is something to be noted,” he said.
While the achievements made by the Afghan media can be quoted as a success story in a crisis-hit Middle East, Iran, a country with a big entrepreneurial, optimistic and educated young population which has not been involved in any war for some three centuries but only in self-defense is now facing a dilemma: legitimacy and reliability of national media in the eyes of this news-thirsty population.
To conclude my report, I asked Jamila Poladova, a film director at Universal Studios Entertainment studying at University of Cologne to share her views.
“I personally think that the media should not be manipulated by government in any way. Obviously, some censorship regulations can be imposed, but reasonably. Manipulated media can never be the right source of information, because they are always full of propaganda and fake news. Only free media can guarantee the true information and freedom of expression.”
Ms Poladova thinks Iranians will find the right media outlets to rely on and follow, but it will be arduous as moving past the restrictions is a time-consuming process.
Iran, a country of 80 million, made of people who follow Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and other faiths, belonging to different ethnic minorities including Arabs, Kurds and Azeris, is still in the process of transition. Its media are similarly through ups and downs to find their way in the global market. So far, they have almost failed the test of legitimacy and popularity marginally as adjudged by experts who talked to Stony Brook Independent, many experts and commentators who are writing about the inability of Iranian media to act independently and professionally and thousands of alienated viewers who press the “red button” on their remote control as soon as an Iranian government authority shows up on the 2:00 PM news programme to defend the high standards of Iran’s airline industry in the wake of a new air tragedy.