Media wars, Iranian style

Trying to restrict foreign media, the government bans satellite dishes and blocks Internet sites. But Iranians tend to ignore CNN anyway.

Published September 28, 2006 10:30AM (EDT)

At the end of August, Reza Hashemi, the manager of an apartment building in northern Tehran, received an upsetting letter from the police. The note contained an ultimatum: Remove the satellite receivers from the roof, or we'll remove them for you. For a few days, Hashemi assumed it was an empty threat. A law against satellite dishes had been on the books in Iran since the mid-1990s, but it had mostly gone un-enforced -- even though it was an open secret that many Iranians used the technology to receive "un-Islamic" television shows from abroad. Then the police came knocking at a neighboring building.

"They came with an empty truck," Hashemi said. "When they left it was full of satellite dishes." So he went door-to-door in his building, breaking the bad news to his tenants. "At other buildings, they came with hammers and destroyed them right there." At least on one occasion, he said, the police didn't even bother with the tools. Last week, an Iranian wire service distributed a photo of a police officer casually dropping a dish off the ledge of a skyscraper rooftop.

Satellite dishes have not been the only target. A law passed by the Iranian Parliament this spring bars Iranians from appearing on foreign-produced broadcasts. Jamming unapproved radio signals and Internet sites is common practice.

Indeed, the Iranian government appears intent on defending itself against foreign efforts, a number of them from the United States, to break its media monopoly within the country. Recently, President Bush delivered a speech at the United Nations General Assembly, which reiterated his administration's hope for regime change in Tehran and was addressed directly to "the people of Iran." Earlier this year, the U.S. Congress committed $50 million to the development of a new Farsi-language satellite television channel. It will join the numerous private broadcasts hostile to the Iranian regime already produced by Iranian immigrants living in California.

For their part, the Iranian people seem largely indifferent to the battle between the international media and their own government for their hearts and minds. In fact, when considering the issues of the day, Iranians display a strong will of their own. Many Iranians will consult a range of foreign and domestic media outlets -- but ultimately dismiss professional journalism altogether. Instead, they often devise their own idiosyncratic analyses of current events, drawing on a long Iranian tradition of conspiracy theorizing. "Iranians," says Professor Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University, "have developed their own special language for dealing with the world."

The widespread cynicism with which Iranians approach the news media is largely a product of the country's distorted media landscape, where news outlets are ubiquitous but objective news reporting is rare. "We don't have a free market," a journalist from a conservative Iranian wire service admitted. "The government sets the tone."

The government's control of the news media is nothing new. "Iran has experienced only two short periods in its history when the press has been able to function relatively unfettered," said Vasij Naderi, a professor of law in Tehran. "The years between the end of World War II and the coup against Mohammed Mossadeq [in 1953], and the months after the election of President Khatami in the late 1990s."

But even the Khatami-led reformist period of the late 1990s never managed to wrest domestic television from the hands of the state. Without a satellite dish, television viewers in Iran have access to six stations, all of which are staffed at the discretion of the Islamic government. Unsurprisingly, broadcasts are exceedingly pious. In one "Dr. Phil"-type segment, a cleric warned about the evils of abortion and praised a young boy who had memorized the Koran. News reports are also strictly on message with the government. U.N. resolution 1701, a cease-fire agreement, is routinely characterized as a Hezbollah victory, while Israel is exclusively referred to as the "Zionist regime."

Coverage of the nuclear conflict is also closely regulated. Iran's nuclear program is presented as a symbol of scientific, not military, progress. At a stage-managed event in February celebrating Iran's successful enrichment of uranium, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered a speech before a backdrop depicting a flock of doves, after which a group of interpretive dancers performed a ballet about the beauty of enriched uranium. Meanwhile, Israel and America were depicted as dangerous warmongers.

The government maintains similar, if more subtle, control over the print media. A cursory look suggests a thriving newspaper scene: Iran has dozens of daily papers. When spread on the sidewalks in front of newsstands, they can give the impression of an active national debate.

None of them, though, are free from ties to the Islamic government. Aside from the subsidies that most newspapers receive from the state to help cover costs not met by advertising revenue, all newspapers are required to mind what are informally known as "red lines." Red lines mark the minimum respect that ought be paid to the government and the Islamic Revolution, lest the Ministry of Culture revoke the paper's license to publish.

Alas, it's not always clear where those red lines are. The popular reformist paper Sharq was shut down in early September after publishing a cartoon in which a horse and a donkey with a halo discussed the regime's handling of the nuclear crisis. Editors argued that it was an innocuous doodle, but the government's press-supervisory board charged the paper with religious blasphemy.

The ambiguous guidelines foster an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. "The rules are kept ambiguous so that journalists learn to police themselves," says Stanford's Milani. In practice, the daily newspapers all hew close to the government line, and journalists, forbidden from appearing on foreign broadcasts, have no other sanctioned outlet.

"We are in a vicious circle. With these crackdowns, more Iranian intellectuals, journalists and scholars are taking refuge with outside-based media to express themselves," says Masha'allah Shamsolva'ezin, spokesman for the Iranian Association for the Defense of Journalists. "Then they're accused of collaboration with foreign media and arrested."

The Iranian public responds in turn with a deepened skepticism of contrived news reports. It is a mechanism Iranians are accustomed to. The traditional Iranian social custom of taarof is a ritualized manner of offering something without actually meaning it. It's typical, for example, for taxi drivers to initially refuse payment at the end of the ride, until the passenger insists on paying. Having been raised with this quotidian variety of double-speak, Iranians are used to not taking what they are told at face value.

That skepticism extends beyond the Iranian media. Most Iranians who tune in to the American-funded Voice of America and lower-budget L.A. talk shows are well aware that those broadcasts are aiming for regime change. "None of these channels are credible," says Naderi, the Tehran law professor. "They exaggerate and stretch the truth. No one would start a revolution on the basis of what they say."

Iranians watch these programs not because they trust the broadcasts, but rather because they're seeking balance to the Iranian state media. "Even Ayatollah Khomeini used to listen to Voice of America and Radio Israel," Milani says.

Nevertheless, reputable news outlets like CNN and the BBC are still dismissed by many. "Every country is just giving its own version of world events," says Ryan Kazemi, a student at Tehran University. "It's clear from CNN that America wants to start a war. Really, it's up to each person to make up his own mind."

With no consensus on what's to be trusted, many Iranians tend to formulate interpretations of world events that oppose the official stories offered by both their government and Western media outlets. But the analyses of many Iranians come across as little more than bizarre conspiracy theories, in which American power often has an outsize role. "America wants perpetual war between Israel and other Middle Eastern countries," explains an accountant; "Iran already has 10 or 15 nuclear bombs," reports a taxi driver; "Ahmadinejad raises the price of yogurt only so he can get credit for lowering it later," contends a hairdresser.

One Iranian journalist, who preferred to remain anonymous, suggested that the Iranian approach to news wasn't necessarily worse than the Western one. "Europeans are complacent," he said. "They've forgotten how to think for themselves and so elites control public opinion."

Milani says this kind of paranoia is predictable. "Conspiracy theories are the natural result when there's no sense of social agency," he says. "There's no other way to make events cohere."

It seems that Iranians wouldn't mind a respite from the need to constantly formulate their opinions and reorient themselves in the world. While the information war between the West and Iran continues unabated, some Iranians seem content simply to tune out. One tenant who objected vehemently to Hashemi's request that he remove his satellite dish didn't lament the loss of CNN or the Voice of America. "Please, no," he cried. "There's a soccer game tonight! Germany plays Ireland!"

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This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. For more from Europe's most-read newsmagazine, please visit Spiegel Online at or subscribe to the daily newsletter.

By Cameron Abadi

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Iran Islam Middle East Religion