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Behind the Curtain | Social Media Fills In for Muted State Media after Earthquakes

by ARASH KARAMI and NEGAR MORTAZAVI

13 Aug 2012 02:06Comments
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Many residents of Ahar spent Saturday night outside in tents (Fars News Agency). A visual appeal for aid (Stands with Fist).

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Arash Karami, a frequent Tehran Bureau contributor, tweets as @thekarami. Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian journalist in Washington, D.C., tweets as @negarmortazavi.
[ blog ] The Islamic Republic's state TV network and other media outlets have been widely criticized for not adequately covering the earthquakes Saturday that killed over 300 people and injured thousands.

The Tabnak website, which is often critical of the Ahmadinejad administration, ran an op-ed that rebuked those who "laid dormant while the country shook" and declared "public mourning for our fellow countrymen in Azerbaijan who lost their lives."

From the first hours after the initial quakes, social media users have taken an active role in sharing news and information about how to provide assistance. Many have shared the link to a website for news regarding blood donation centers on their Facebook pages. Many Facebook users have also either shared or changed their profile pictures to an image created by the art group Stands with Fist (see above). It depicts Iran with the word "Azerbaijan" written between the borders; the dot over the Persian alphabet's equivalent of "n" -- in the northwest, where the quakes occurred -- has been replaced by a drop of blood. 



Many people have also shared Mana Neyestani's cartoon commenting on the weak coverage of the disaster by Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. An IRIB anchor announces, "Important news: The West's new scenario -- creating instability along Syria's borders. The death of one person from poverty in France. Zionists concerned by the meeting of..." The corner of the television screen on which he appears is peeled back, revealing a dead child and wailing mother. A sign amid the surrounding rubble reads "Azerbaijan."

The earthquake has also raised the issue of sanctions. Most international banks are now effectively forbidden from working with Iranian banks; as a result, members of the Iranian diaspora have been unable to send cash donations to their countrymen.

After the devastating earthquake in Bam in 2003, the Bush administration issued a temporary general license that allowed U.S. residents to send relief donations into Iran for 90 days, a move welcomed by then President Mohammad Khatami's government. However, that license has long since expired, and it has not been replaced. Advocates of sanctions place the blame on the Revolutionary Guards, accusing them of having misused charity organizations as a cover for their activities.


Thomas Erdbink of the New York Times reported from Tehran that night rescue missions were suspended because international sanctions make it effectively impossible for Iran to purchase night-vision equipment, which has potential military applications.

Opposition groups, however, have laid the primary blame for what is widely seen as an inadequate response to the quakes at the feet of the Iranian government for what they call its poor disaster planning and management. British-based journalist Masih Alinejad interviewed a former member of parliament from East Azerbaijan who directly criticized the state TV network for not covering the earthquake properly and therefore not attracting enough attention to the importance of contributing to relief efforts. He added that locals were expecting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to come to the stricken region, since he travels to so many impoverished areas for other purposes, or at least that Majles Speaker Ali Larijani or one of his deputies would show up to attract more news coverage. He concluded that the event was simply not taken seriously enough by the government.

Copyright © 2012 Arash Karami and Negar Mortazavi

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