Media

    The Glasshouse
    The Role of the Media in Contemporary Iran

    Cyber café in the city centre, Antananarivo, Madagascar. Photo: Markus Kirchgessner An old photo

    In an album full of old photos of Tehran, a picture dating from 1940 depicts a relatively large crowd of people gathered around the entrance to a tea-house beneath a large old-fashioned wireless in a raised alcove in the wall. The posture and gestures of the people in the photo make it clear that they are listening to an important news item being broadcast on the radio. Anyone not familiar with social life in Iran might think they were listening to a live broadcast of a football match.

    Some newspapers and private documents from the period include reports of people in the late 1930s – when a wireless was still considered a luxury in Tehran – gathering on the footpath outside tea-houses that owned wirelesses to listen to the news in Persian being broadcast by Radio Berlin to find out about the territorial gains made by the Germans at the front. Reports of such conquests fired the imagination of the crowds on the street and were greeted with cheers and applause; after all, every German victory corresponded to a defeat of the colonial powers that were the Soviet Union and Great Britain.

    This was the only period in modern Iranian history in which the powers-that-be looked favourably on Persian news and reports being broadcast from outside the country’s borders. Although the Iranian government feigned neutrality during the turmoil of the Second World War, the dictatorial Shah, who was inordinately afraid of the British and secretly longed for their defeat, could not conceal his satisfaction at these German conquests. However, this was also the period of the country’s most blatant censorship. At night, agents of the political police would call on printing works, check newspaper articles, and delete any undesirable reports.

    The BBC in the absence of independent media

    When the Allied armies occupied Tehran in September 1941, the Shah was sent into exile and the assemblies outside the tea-houses came to an abrupt end. The occupying powers had introduced a ban on listening to German radio. But it didn’t end there. According to some reports, they also confiscated vehicles with radios on the streets of Tehran. However, there was nothing to stop people listening to the BBC’s Persian Service; it was not even considered necessary, especially as the newspapers were able to write their reports on what was happening at the front to suit the Allied soldiers in the country. BBC Radio’s Persian Service was in no hurry; the day would come when it would assume its historic role.

    About thirty-five years later, when rumours about a regime change in Tehran were intensifying and the weakened opposition, which had escaped persecution at the hands of the Shah, was gradually regaining its confidence, BBC Radio’s Persian Service was one of the only broadcasters to transmit the opposition’s demands. The streets in Tehran were regularly deserted for the duration of the 45-minute programme broadcast every day by the British corporation. Another reason why the news from the BBC was so popular in the last months of the monarchy was that the Iranian press had called for a nationwide two-month strike to protest against the censorship. At this time, of all times, when the Iranians’ thirst for news was at its greatest, the Iranian press handed over to BBC Radio the opportunity to exert a decisive influence on events. When the newspapers reappeared just five weeks before the Shah was finally deposed, the two most important newspapers in the capital reached a daily circulation of one million copies – a record that remains unbroken to this day.

    The British ambassador of the time notes in his memoirs that the Shah repeatedly asked him to get his government to put pressure on the corporation because it was broadcasting biased news. The ambassador’s helplessness during these audiences is evident. It goes without saying that on such occasions he launched into a lengthy, exhaustive defence of press freedom in his native country. Obviously the Shah of Iran, who had always mistrusted the intentions of the British, had at the time absolutely no knowledge of the documents in the central archive of the BBC. One of these documents showed that at the end of the Second World War, when the conflict about the nationalisation of the Iranian oil sector had flared up once again, the British government issued instructions to the BBC to the effect that it was necessary, in this regard, for the corporation to relaunch its propaganda activities via the Persian Service.

    While technological progress makes it difficult to cover up lies, there is always the risk that it opens up the field for even bigger lies.

    Journalism, an accursed profession

    In recent history, Iranians have never trusted either their own media or statements made by senior politicians about home affairs. The Iranian media, which have to pass through a strict and complex censorship, convince hardly anyone that what they report is true. State-run television and radio, on which the regime has a monopoly, have the worst reputation in this regard. In most historical periods, the high cost of publishing the truth has forced journalists to keep within specific boundaries. Following the CIA-backed overthrow of the government in Iran in 1953, an arrested journalist who had used the brief period of relative press freedom to make some disclosures, was burned alive in the presence of the Shah’s twin sister.

    To this day, Persian-language media, whose reports and programmes are broadcast or distributed from outside the country’s borders and do not, as a result, come under the influence of the ruling government in Iran, have a high standing among Iranians. This is evidence of how much Iranians want to keep pace with ‘history’.

    Censorship and oppression

    During the reign of the Shah, listening to foreign radio stations, especially those that were based in Moscow, Beijing, or Baghdad, was considered a relatively serious offence. In some cases, the person in question disappeared suddenly and without warning. If neighbours asked his family where he was, the response generally involved vague insinuations, which naturally pointed to the fact that he had committed some kind of political offence. As soon as he was released from prison, the neighbours found out that his political activity had involved nothing more than listening to broadcasts made by the opposition.

    The preference for Persian-language media from abroad remains a sensitive issue to this day. One strange and alarming occurrence has been repeated countless times in Iranian society in recent years: a truck suddenly grinds to a halt in front of a residential building; young police officers jump out and thunder up the stairs. A few minutes later, satellite dishes can be seen being thrown onto the street from the roof. The police then confiscate the receivers and give the inhabitants a written summons to present themselves immediately at their local police station. This scene has been played out so many times that no one takes the summons seriously any more. The most that happens is that old satellite dishes are replaced by new ones a few days later – as if nothing had happened. People who live in a society that is permanently exposed to uncertainty and insecurity crave information about what is going on, even if it means risking their lives to find out.

    The defenceless world

    Politics and tradition have used a comprehensive propaganda machine to put the Iranian world under a kind of security shield in order to protect it against apparently damaging external influences. Over the past decade, however, global technological progress has rendered this Iranian world completely defenceless and limitless. A few years ago, a video of a frightening interrogation spread so widely around the internet that the Speaker of the Iranian Parliament at the time was forced to take the Minister for Justice to task about the matter. Two or three years later, news spread like wildfire around the worldwide web that a high-ranking Iranian police official had been arrested in the presence of seven naked women in a brothel. While his sudden disappearance from the political scene confirmed that he had been arrested, the actual reason for it remained a mystery. This honorable gentlemen had been given the job of issuing cautions to women who were not sufficiently well-veiled on the streets of Tehran.

    A short time prior to this the streets of Tehran had become a bazaar for CDs showing a much-loved and well-behaved actress in a popular television series getting serious with a man in an amateur porn film! This private film found its way onto the market via a technician who had repaired the actress’s laptop, but that is neither here nor there. What is important is that this story illustrates how Iranians are simultaneously confronted with two contradictory versions of the same situation. While state television paints Iranian politicians as people of the very finest moral fibre, television channels abroad degrade them to the lowest possible level of human life in disparaging caricatures. The difference between the two extremes corresponds to the difference between God and the devil. It is likely that never before in their history have Iranian people been confronted with such extreme contradictions in news coverage.

    The internet, the Satan of the modern age

    Internet café, Luxor, Egypt. Photo: Markus KirchgessnerSo this is the inheritance with which Iranians are stepping into the twenty-first century. According to a recently published report, 28.5 million people in Iran surf the net; domestic use in Iran exceeds the average internet use for Asia, which  means that Iran tops the ranking for internet use in the Middle East. In the course of last June’s controversial presidential elections and subsequent events, footage shot using mobile phones transformed every resident of Tehran into a potential reporter. Sometimes, even radio conversations between police commanders who gave the command to launch the brutal attacks ended up on the net. In one short video, a police vehicle can be seen crushing a young demonstrator beneath its wheels. The informative function of the new media is so significant that only a few hours after a camera recorded the life of a young woman called Neda seeping away on a Tehran street, her visual message had spread around the world. The publication on the net of photos showing the mutilated bodies of young people in the Kahrizak prison camp was so appalling that the Iranian parliament was forced to set up a truth-finding commission to investigate the circumstances. The public life of the Iranian population has changed so fundamentally as a result of the opportunities opened up by the virtual space that is the internet, it is as if they are living this life in a glasshouse. This profound change is taking place in a cultural environment that doggedly insists on secrecy, disguise, and cover-up.

    In view of these circumstances, ‘Every citizen is a medium’ became one of the most famous slogans of the recent social movement, in order to emphasise the importance of reporting on the demonstrations on the street by text message. This is why it is not surprising that, in these circumstances, every citizen is also a potential suspect.

    The magical power of the text message

    At present, politics in Iran seems to be about the implementation of empty and hollow policies, and in those moments when the suffering associated with them subsides, people have the opportunity to laugh together, which, according to Henri Bergson’s theory, can put an end to their loneliness. Just before the most recent conflicts about the election results, the volume of political jokes that people exchanged with networks of friends and relations was so great that the Iranian telecom posted a text message record. These jokes undermine the formality and sacrosanctity of civil official bodies, which are permanently strengthened by massive propaganda, making a mockery of their power and aura. This is why the natural reaction to these jokes gains in social significance.

    The war of the airwaves

    On the other side of this conflict is the government, which naturally has not been sitting on its hands and has deployed state-of-the-art technology to combat such developments. The blocking of certain websites, which is done under the supervision of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, began years ago. The blocking of mobile telephony on certain days, however, is a new strategy. The use of interference signals to prevent people from receiving satellite channels is another strategy recently adopted by the Iranian government. Around about the same time, a discussion began on the internet warning the government about the carcinogenic effects of these interference signals on people living in close proximity to them. The debate caused public outrage; the government, as usual, remained unmoved by it all. Interestingly, a French satellite company that provides the Iranian government with communication services warned that it would halt the provision of its service – including access to news, television, and geodetic satellites – if the interference continued. We are at present witnessing a real electronic war.

    In Iran nowadays a phone call is enough to stop a newspaper being published. Charges, hearings, defences and juries – none of these are necessary. Ninety journalists were arrested in Iran in 2009, and recently the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) announced that one-third of all imprisoned reporters in the world are in Iran. It is no surprise, therefore, that during the latest crisis, the ‘street’ replaced all banned newspapers and that the people conquered this place of public assembly on some days in order to overcome the silence of the voices. At the same time, thousands of video clips, songs, caricatures, posters, and pieces of graphic art on the internet are discrediting the arrogant image of state-controlled newspapers that claim that life is just carrying on as normal.

    The moral maze

    The dizziness that the tidal wave of contradictory messages triggers in Iranians confronts them with the fundamental question as to where to find the truth in the midst of all this chaos. While the state media claimed that one million people took part in the demonstrations to mark the anniversary of the foundation of the Islamic Republic on February 11th, satellite pictures taken by Google Earth showed that large areas of Azadi Square, where the central demonstration took place, were, in fact, completely empty. These images were supplemented by others showing endless queues of buses, carrying demonstrators from Tehran’s suburbs or perhaps even further afield, which points to the fact that the demonstrations were in fact stage-managed and calls into question the spontaneity of the demonstration as claimed by state propaganda. Both sides accused each other of manipulation. Fact is, however, that the reports put out by the state media clearly contradicted the eye-witness reports of Iranians on the street. The behaviour of these media, which also present themselves as the champions of morality and humane values, has sent Iranian society stumbling into a moral maze.

    In view of the endless expanses of the virtual world, in view of all the websites and blogs with news, all the radio and television channels that disseminate news and broadcast programmes in Persian, the state media in Iran are relatively isolated. This is why for Iranians, who base their convictions on their day-to-day experiences, one word above all others has engraved itself on minds and opinions: ‘the lie’. The leaders of the most recent protest movements have spoken on many occasions and for many reasons about the ‘rule of the lie’. Presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who does not recognise the result of the election, declared in a television debate that ‘people wonder how many lies are being told’.

    The wolves attack

    While the offence committed by many of those imprisoned in the most recent unrest in Iran had been that they recorded on their mobile phones scenes of the police beating and attacking demonstrators, BBC Persian suddenly showed a short, censored film about a police attack on the student residences at the University of Tehran, to incite and incense once again those people who were themselves witnesses of comparable scenes. On the night in question, which is now considered the blackest night in the history of the university, the entrance doors to the student residences were broken down in a deplorable raid, students were dragged along the ground like slaughtered sheep, piled up on one another, and beaten without restraint. A shameful document!

    While the students themselves had published news and videos of the police attack on the residences on a minute-by-minute basis several months ago, this film, which was made using a professional camera and shows events from the perspective of the attackers, led to new, contradictory speculations. It is obvious that this film was circulated on purpose. It is also obvious that it was given a new soundtrack in order to exonerate some of the attackers and to present others as the guilty parties. For our purposes, none of these speculations are of any significance. What is important is that the public sphere is now completely under the control of the media and that we now have this film as a historical document, so that it will, alongside the pictures from inside Abu Ghraib prison, or the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, remain forever in the collective memory of humanity.

    In view of the many opportunities available to every individual to transmit his or her private observations and experiences, the voice of those who have cut themselves off from history and are calling for censorship and uniformity has turned into the lonely whimpering of primates. These primates may be able to survive in one particular corner of the world, but nobody wants to listen to them.

    Iran is not exceptional. Incredibly, the entire world now resembles this country. In order to understand the revolution triggered by the electronic media, it almost seems enough to look at the example of Iran.
    Amir Hassan Cheheltan,
    born 1956, is one of the most important contemporary Iranian authors. His latest novel to be published in Germany was Tehran, Revolution Road.

    Translated by Aingeal Flanagan
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2010

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