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Ahmadinejad and the Press

25 Jun 2009 16:538 Comments

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

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Regimes that persist by manipulating their populace's propensity to fear have a vested interest in feeding off each other. Ahmadenijad and the Western democracies form a duality where each pole is only too happy to play their part. The losers in the scenario is, of course, the people of both countries, who are either swept up in the madness, demonized as terrorists or Godless materialists. Nations, like all structures of belief, are abstractions that require the perpetual reification of ignorance in order to maintain themselves. Bogus historicism, racism, and xenophobia are the attendant lies on both sides. Perhaps the current Iranian uprising will come to be seen as the first salvo of the world's people in a post-national global era. One can do more than hope, we can all take a lesson from anyone who challenges any system which purports to be in our best interest, but isn't. So let us all continue to work for change.

Ersatz Bling / June 25, 2009 2:22 PM

Ersatz Bling, can't say it better than that. They all give us all tremendous hope for that future.

and the press, they have no problem passing on government lies as both our countries know far to well, pass on their slant, their grave anaylsis, but they are very often wrong and far to self important. Now, you are speaking to us the people over here, not just the press. See, we can get the story ourselves, we in fact help them get theirs. This time it is people talking to people. People helping people. I can't bleed for you, but I'll type my fingers to the bone and so will thousands of others.

If the press was so credible, why did we go in Iraq? Iranians need to worry about Iranians. Share your story- we are listening.

DellaRae / June 25, 2009 7:27 PM

"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"

Ghaddafi comes very close.

Don Cox / June 26, 2009 6:36 AM

Any news from Iran that isn't blatant propaganda is worth reading, these days, but there were a couple of things that struck me looking over your fine piece:

"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"

We all like to think our own man is special, yet even with W. Bush gone (who gives your Mr. A some stiff competition), were Mr. A to join the Republican Party here in the US, I doubt he would crack the top 10.

"it's well known among Iranians that we are prone to hyperbole and rumor"

Ah - so you're actually just like every other nationality on Earth, then. That's not Iranian, that's human.

"At the first whiff that a developing story might be fabricated, traditional media outlets covering Iran will put the story on the shelf."

I think you're being too pessimistic here - at least in the US, accuracy and reality have little to do with a story's life. Certainly there are still world media outlets capable of embarrassment and interested in reporting news accurately, but I suspect that even the most staid European papers have other concerns than potential fabrication affecting their decisions about 'print or kill'.

As for future coverage of Iranian popular struggles being hurt by a perception of "wolf-crying", I wouldn't worry. When has that ever been a factor? The story has died here in the US (not that it was ever carried very much anyway) because it didn't have enough sex or scandal and wasn't politically helpful to the right-wing, not because of worry that the 'massacre' might not have been as bloody as the tweets indicated. If future uprisings are initially ignored in some of the media, I suspect it will be more that there is now a general perception that your version of the Republican Party is too strong and too clever to be affected merely by popular unrest. Luckily, though, someone is likely to cover events in Iran, and eventually other media will jump on the band-wagon if it looks like a winner. Don't Panic!

JohnR / June 26, 2009 10:39 AM

Re: the 'Baharestan Square Massacre' on Wednesday 24 June.

I saw this article on the website of the French newspaper Le Monde this morning:


Entitled 'Witnesses from Iran' it interviewed three Iranians about the violence on Wednesday 24 June. One of the witness, 'M. habite a Teheran', went to Baharestan Square after the violence and spoke to some of the shop keepers in the square. They told him that:

"Then, all of a sudden, hundreds of Basiji came out of the Hedayat Mosque. They were dressed in black and carried batons, knives and axes! Can you believe that? They started to beat the people with their weapons. The shop keepers told me that they particularly took on the women and that they insulted them. [...]

I went then towards Saadi Street, where some shops were burnt. I was told that their proprietors had opened their shops to allow the demonstrators to enter and that they had been attacked by the Basiji. The shopkeepers also told me that the Basiji had pushed some people from the pedestrian bridge that overhangs Saadi Street. No-one knew the number of victims, but it must be high."

This is third hand testimony, not proof, but I don't think we should assume that the tweets and CNN phone call on Wednesday were necessarily false.

Rest of the article is worth reading too. You can machine translate it with Google Translate.

David / June 26, 2009 12:45 PM

id like to know wat the writer means by "islamism"

Aswira / June 26, 2009 1:40 PM

The cleric's & Ahmadinejad say they speak on God's behalf; but I know God would say, "They're having a laugh, aren't they"!

v.gerrard / June 27, 2009 11:27 AM

Ersatz Bling,

Well said my friend. Well said.

vilux / June 28, 2009 9:11 PM