Ahmadinejad and the Press
25 Jun 2009 16:53
By JASON REZAIAN in Dubai | 25 June 2009
[TEHRAN BUREAU] Two days after the June 12 election, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad held a press conference for the foreign media in Iran. As usual, Ahmadinejad opened by re-stating his desire for the hasty return of the Mahdi, the Shiite Messiah figure whose return is expected at the end of days, and then moved quickly into a condescending and passive aggressive tirade against the foreign media, who he said had been fighting a propaganda war against his holy administration since it took office four years prior. Some of those responsible for that war, he added, could be seen there in the audience that day.
Ain't that rich? I thought, as it had long been my opinion that, without the foreign media hanging on his every hateful word, Ahmadinejad would be a global nobody. Instead, he's become a very divisive figure in what is an unofficial war of civilizations. In every Muslim country I've visited, most of them Sunni, Ahmadinejad gets a resounding thumbs up, resulting from the perception that he is one of the few world leaders with enough backbone to stand up against the US. I've even met Americans on the left who admire him for that same reason.
Watching American television interviews with him over the years I sometimes got the sense that the interviewers, specifically Mike Wallace and Larry King, actually liked the guy in a perverse way. He has a knack for not answering their questions, turning interviews into debates, and denying statements he had previously made on record, all of which the interviewers must find thrilling.
A couple hours after that press conference, I stood on a wobbly balcony overlooking Valiasr Square, where tens of thousands of individuals had been bused in from all corners of Iran to cheer the president, resulting in yet another photo op intended to help solidify Western perceptions of an Iran defined by Islamism.
Clearly I wasn't supposed to be there, but I looked the part of Iranian security forces enough that no one seemed to care. As Ahmadinejad's diminutive figure approached, I thought about all the terrible things I could do to him, and found myself wishing I had a pie handy.
There's not a single global figure I can think of right now who is as self-righteous and as content with being out of touch with reality as Mr. Ahmadinejad; subsequently, the thought of white cream covering his face gave me Goosebumps.
On that day very few Western journalists in Tehran were questioning this man's legitimacy, or if they were, they were more than happy to be his mouthpiece, and his handlers knew it. "Every major newspaper and television network is here," one of the organizers told the crowd. "Let's show the world how much we love Dr. Ahmadinejad!"
This statement encapsulates this regime's mastery of using traditional media to get their message to as many people in as many places as is humanly possible. They understand that television and print media, for most people around the world, are about images and not words.
Meanwhile on the Internet, opposition forces were slowly losing access to their main tools of dissemination: Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube were blocked, and the speed of the Internet had been reduced to a trickle.
Almost two weeks later, it appears that the regime is winning the war of information flow, and yet the opposition is still not defeated. It's a pivotal time however, and now that no one from the Western media is on the ground in Iran to vet the stories coming out, whatever remaining individuals do manage to get reports out need to be incredibly careful. Credibility is now very much an issue for anyone speaking with journalists from major networks and newspapers, while claiming to know what's really happening in Iran.
No one is calling the tragedy of Neda, the young woman gunned down in a protest last week, a hoax; but the story of yesterday's "Baharestan Massacre," in which people were reportedly "shot like animals," and axed to death in the street, seems questionable.
Although few will admit it, it's well known among Iranians that we are prone to hyperbole and rumor, and those who want to have their say from Tehran must consider this carefully moving forward. The future of their struggle, as it is perceived in the eyes of the rest of the world, depends on it.
At the first whiff that a developing story might be fabricated, traditional media outlets covering Iran will put the story on the shelf. There is already a sense of fatigue and frustration, as it's become such a difficult story to report, and yet Iran has also become somewhat of a juggernaut, recapturing the world's imagination in much the way it did thirty years ago.
Iran is in the process being re-branded globally, with most media outlets showing younger, more Western friendly faces, as opposed to the tired, stereotyped religious fanatics we've seen for the past three decades. At the moment, the power and responsibility is in the hands of the younger generations, but if the Western media feels burned this time around, I doubt they will come running the next time Iranians cry "foul."
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau