Juice boxes and Persian patriots

Azadi Square and Azadi Tower, Tehran (image: matthew cassel)

Azadi Tower is one of my favorite architectural structures anywhere in the world. I’m still not sure if my attraction to it is for purely aesthetic reasons or because of the fascinating history behind it. It’s definitely a combination of the two.

Azadi Tower was built by the Shah of Iran in 1971 to commemorate 2,500 years of the Persian monarchy. Originally called the King Memorial Tower, it was built as part of a series of nation-wide lavish events celebrating the anniversary that were heavily criticized by the Shah’s opponents, namely Ayatollah Khomeini in exile at the time. Eight years later the monarchy would be no longer. Khomeini and others, from Leftists to Islamists to workers to academics, overthrew the Shah and henceforth Iran became the Islamic Republic of Iran and King Memorial Tower became Freedom (Azadi in Farsi) Tower.

I stood with an Iranian friend, a dedicated opposition activist, in the middle of the huge square marveling at the tower with the mountains outside Tehran off in the distance. We took a seat off to the side and spoke about Iran, politics, life, and a number of other issues inspired by the tranquil square surrounded by a bustling metropolis. She laughed pointing at the freshly painted base of the tower that had previously been marked with green graffiti by opposition protesters when they gathered at Azadi Square during the large protests last June. It was an important time for her and many others in Tehran when their opposition movement seemed to have reached a critical mass.

After a while of talking under the sun we got up and I asked my friend if there was a place where we could get a drink. We brushed the grass and dirt off of our pants and looked around, nothing. I can’t remember if I said it out loud or not, but I certainly wished in my head that there was a NYC-style hot dog vendor or the Iranian equivalent at the square so we could get some quick and cheap refreshments. In any case, we got in a taxi and headed back into the city.

Months after the opposition, Azadi Square would again host large numbers of placard bearing Iranian demonstrators. On February 11, 2010, like on most February 11s since 1979, hundreds of thousands if not millions of Iranians came out to commemorate the 31st anniversary of the Iranian revolution. The below is a link to my critique of the Western media’s coverage of the anniversary and the ongoing internal conflict in Iran for the Guardian’s Comment is Free.

Not all Iranians hate their regime
by Matthew Cassel

Describing the events in Iran yesterday, CNN correspondent Ivan Watson made a point of mentioning that free food and drink were handed out in Azadi Square to those celebrating the 31st anniversary of the revolution – as if the treats were part of a cunning ploy by the Ahmadinejad government.

Although some of my friends in Tehran who walked for miles to attend the hours of festivities at Azadi Square told me regretfully that they were not offered free food or drink, I don’t doubt that refreshments were indeed distributed at the rally.

The Western media and Iran


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.

CNN video of nighttime invasion

The above frightening “amateur video” was shown on CNN International. The video reminds me of every single night that I spent living in the Balata refugee camp in the occupied West Bank, except it’s missing the gun shots, percussion grenades and sounds of Israeli bulldozers plowing into shops on the main street. The below video was shot by a friend in Balata, unfortunately this “terrifying” video will never be shown on CNN. Neither will the “terrifying” videos of nightly home invasions by the US army in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If you wonder why there are no screams in the bottom video it’s because Palestinians have become used to the 3am invasions. When I lived in Balata they occurred about six nights out of the week. Nighttime invasions by police or the army are a horrific experience for anyone around, they should all be broadcast on CNN.

Intersections in DC

Two different worlds:

CNN: With still two days before Obama’s inauguration, CNN is showing video from cameras posted at a number of intersections in Washington, DC, to show how many people are already arriving to witness the “historical event.” About 20 people are shown crossing each intersection. 

Al Jazeera: Palestinians in Gaza, finally allowed to get to certain areas that had been closed off by the occupying Israeli army, found over 100 bodies buried beneath the rubble. Al Jazeera is showing images of the dead bodies being unearthed from under the rubble.

Cycle of Conflict

Cycle of Conflict, a special CNN program about Israel/Palestine, just simplified the history of the conflict by saying that the Arab-Israeli war began six decades ago, then jumped to 1967 when Israel captured the Gaza Strip and added that some Israelis moved there, and then jumped to 2005 when Israel removed the settlers to try and ease tensions with the Palestinians. Seriously, that was pretty much it. 1948-2005 in a few sentences. 

I heard once that the majority of Palestinians in Gaza are refugees, I wish that aspect would be explained. It seems pretty important if one wanted to present the history of a conflict between two groups of people, no?

About 80% of Palestinians in Gaza are refugees from the area of land that was once Palestine and is now Israel. 750,000 were forced from their homes and forced to take refuge in camps in Gaza, the West Bank and surrounding Arab countries like Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. 60 years later, Palestinians make up the largest refugee group in the world numbering around six million, this despite UN resolution 194 passed in December 1948 that calls for the right of return of those Palestinians who wish to return to their land and homes.

CNN is crap, absolute crap

They are so quick to use footage from Arabic agencies or satellite channels to show speeches by Arab leaders or other images that fit their agenda, but it is impossible to find any of the great Ramattan footage of children being treated on the floors of hospitals due to a lack of beds! This is an outrage! This is not a war on Hamas, this is a war on all 1.5 million people in Gaza. Hamas is no more religioulsly fanatic than the Zionist movement, but of course there is no background of Zionism offered. They are quick to go back decades to inofrm us that Hamas was born from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, but why can’t they tell us the history of Zionism as a movement to create a Jewish state in a land inhabited by non-Jews. I would love to know what that is all about. 

The Western Media is disgusting in their biased coverage. “Objectivity” is a joke.

CNN on the massacres

It is amazing watching CNN and Al Jazeera Arabic in their coverage of this conflict.I watched 20 minutes of CNN where they covered extensively Palestinian rocket strikes into southern Israel. Families were shown fleeing the rocket attacks, old women crying, medical crews were stressed from the non-stop scurrying from one place to another. They then cut to a program about Hamas done before the attacks started where the fighters were shown masked and training for a possible ground invasion against Israel. One who sees this program with no context would think, poor Israelis suffering from the terrorist attacks of these masked Islamists. The almost 400 Palestinians killed are nothing but a number.

CNN, and other major media have been prevented by Israel from entering Gaza. This works out well for them since they can use it as an excuse for why they have no coverage of the attacks from a Palestinian perspective. Even though there are Palestinian news agencies, like Ramattan, in Gaza who are able to provide footage from the attacks in Gaza. To be fair, CNN has shown some of Ramattan’s footage, but I found when watching that it was impossible to identify and sympathize with the Palestinians under attack like it was with the Israelis.

This is not an even fight. Gazans have been under siege for a year and a half. Hundreds of people have died because Israel (and Egypt under Israel’s orders) have closed the borders and not allowed the sick to leave to receive proper medical treatment. People in recent months have had to dig through the trash in order to feed their families. There is no electricity for most of the day. And despite all this, Israel has launched a war against a defenseless people in the prison that is Gaza.

This is the biggest injustice of at least my lifetime, if not the biggest since WWII. History will recognize it as such, it must. And we will see that the media was part of the reason why the world sat by silent to the massacring of civilians.

Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, said on CNN just now that Israel does not want a “band-aid solution” to the conflict. Meanwhile, Al Jazera is showing what this “band-aid solution” means with images of dozens of children being buried in the Gaza Strip.

Massacres in Gaza

In Israel they often count cases of “shock” in their injured from Palestinian homemade rocket attacks. I think I need to be treated for shock after watching footage of strikes on Gaza. CNN is talking about how Hamas infrastructures are mixed into civilian areas, and thus many civilians are among the dead. When the correspondent was asked what happened to the truce, she started off by saying that rockets were fired by Palestinians and then targeted strikes by Israel in Gaza. Someone should tell her that Israel, like it often does, used the distraction of the American elections on 4 November to strike Gaza.

I don’t know what to say. This is a massacre. Israel has starved Gazans, all of them, taken away their right to get medical care, cut off their electricity, forced them to dig through the trash for food, and now they are striking them with the best weaponry in the world. History will see this as the biggest injustice of this present time. And meanwhile we sit by.