The Western media and Iran
Matthew Cassel, The Electronic Intifada, 23 June 2009
Protestors, anywhere in the world, are extremely brave individuals whose reasons for demonstrating openly should be listened to and respected. Protest is democracy at work. However, too often, US and other Western-based media pick and choose which protests to cover and which to ignore completely.
The US media often celebrate themselves as the “freest and fairest” in the world, completely independent of a state unlike, for example, the media in Iran. Yet, an astute observer will notice that the US media generally choose stories and cover them in a way that play directly into the US’s global agenda.
Who decides whether or not a particular issue is “newsworthy?” One would think that this is the role of the media, to cover issues like conflict or rights abuses as they happen around the world. Although, it seems this isn’t the case. Most Western media appear to follow their government’s lead when focusing on different issues and then cover them in a way fitting with the government’s position, hence the complete domination of events in Iran in nearly every single Western media outlet and the overwhelmingly positive portrayal of the protestors and the opposition as just. The current case of Iran makes it clear that it is governments who are directing the media’s coverage, instead of the actual news organizations themselves.
There was also a noticeable shift in the US media’s coverage of foreign affairs after the attacks of 11 September 2001. Soon after, then President George Bush’s rule of “with us or against us” was applied to all, and media outlets and individuals critical of American foreign policy were immediately demonized and labeled “unpatriotic” or “anti-American.” To counter such charges, it became common for American television journalists to prove their patriotism and loyalty by wearing American-flag lapel pins.
These reasons explain why over recent weeks while the Iran elections were happening there has been virtually no coverage in most media of demonstrations numbering in the tens of thousands in Georgia or Peru. It has even been reported in Peru that dozens of persons have been killed during the protests, or “clashes” as they’ve also been labeled (since more than a dozen police have also been killed), more than the reported number killed in Iran.
Why are protests in Iran receiving more attention than those in other places? One logical explanation is that the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is a key ally of the US and NATO. Thus, the West and its media have remained largely silent about the opposition protests to not give them attention that would likely inspire the demonstrations to continue and grow, undoubtedly weakening the Saakashvili government.
Meanwhile, the situation in Latin America is particularly sensitive. Coverage of protests by indigenous groups and their supporters in Peru might further embolden these efforts and expose the unjust policies of recent Free Trade Agreements with the US and perhaps lead that country down a path like the increasingly popular governments of Venezuela or Bolivia. Of course, both nations are seen as “anti-American” for their critical positions regarding US intervention in Latin America.
However, Iran is different than both Georgia and Peru. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has probably overtaken Osama Bin Laden as the most hated individual in the US. Over the past several years, many officials in Washington have called for more aggressive actions to be taken against Iran. More recently, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave US President Barack Obama an ultimatum that the US president better take care of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program, or else Israel would. It’s no coincidence then that the protests in Iran are receiving around-the-clock media coverage and are also one of the only examples in recent years where US government officials have showed support for demonstrators like Obama did when he called on Iran to “stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people.” They are certainly not the only protests that have been met with violent government repression.
For years, Palestinians have organized weekly nonviolent demonstrations against Israel’s wall in the West Bank. Each week protestors face the heavily-armed Israeli military and are beaten and shot at with rubber-coated steel bullets and tear-gas canisters, sometimes fatally. Yet, during his recent speech in Cairo to the Muslim world, Obama made no reference to these protests and instead called on Palestinians to “abandon violence” and adopt nonviolent means. Days after the speech a Palestinian was killed and a teenager wounded during the weekly protest, yet there has been no call by the US administration for Israel to “stop all violent and unjust actions” against the Palestinian people. And the media has followed and remained silent, even though covering the demonstrations would be as easy as a 30-minute drive from most Jerusalem-based news bureaus on any given Friday.
Furthermore, at the height of the Bush Administration’s call for “democracy” in the Middle East, an indigenous democratic movement arose in Egypt to challenge the corruption and failed economic policies of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Comprised of workers who organized unprecedented strikes for four years that grew in number with each successive rally, the demonstrations received little coverage in the US. An odd occurrence, considering the duration of the strikes and the size of the protests, which a number of observers believe had the potential to lead to something much bigger in Egypt, perhaps even a “revolution.” The lack of media coverage of these events can only be explained by the relationship between the US and Egypt. Mubarak, who has governed Egypt for nearly three decades, is often referred to as a dictator for his repression of opposition political figures and journalists critical of his government. Yet, he remains one of the most important US allies in the Middle East, so “violent and unjust actions” against Egyptians is tolerated by the West.
Similarly, during Israel’s three-week assault on Gaza this past winter, there were massive and unprecedented demonstrations across the Middle East in support of Palestinians in the besieged territory. Again, these received minor if any mention, likely because it challenged the media and Washington’s narrative that Israel was “fighting Hamas.”
Also in accordance with that narrative, there was scant footage broadcast in the Western media from inside Gaza. Similar to what Iran is doing now, Israel banned journalists from entering Gaza during the attacks. Despite this, there were large Arabic-language satellite stations like Al-Jazeera reporting from the ground with footage of nearly everything that was happening there.
When images were shown by CNN or its competitors, it was generally not true to the real horror faced by Palestinians in Gaza. I can’t recall seeing one video of one of the hundreds of children killed in Gaza shown in the US media. In contrast, two days ago CNN broadcasted footage of a woman who was shot and bleeding to death on a Tehran street. Most of these viral videos are taken on citizens’ mobile phones, and they even have a special logo that CNN has created for the “unverified material.”
But there is plenty of “verified material” showing violent images from the Middle East and many other places around the world in recent days, weeks, years that has never been shown. Videos and testimonials are readily available on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, waiting, indeed begging, for the US media to take notice. But coverage of certain places might contradict US foreign policy there, something much of the media are proving unwilling to do.
If the elections and demonstrations in Iran have revealed anything, it is that there are undeniably huge divisions that will greatly affect the future of the country. It’s the individual’s decision to choose which side he or she supports, if any. And it’s the responsibility of the media to be independent of the authorities and to present accurate information in context so that news consumers’ judgments will be informed and not made based off the foreign policy of Western governments.
A free and independent media is an essential part of any democracy, and something that the West is proving more and more that it lacks.