By Emily McNeill
Miran Derakhshanbeh’s accent is unmistakably British. At first, with a little imagination, his newscast sounds something like the BBC. But after a few moments, the difference becomes clear. In fact, Derakhshanbeh’s casts, produced in Tehran and broadcast around the world on the Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran English-language radio station, are self-consciously opposed to the BBC and other Western-based news organizations operating internationally.
As he explains, “It’s obvious what it is, once you listen to our news. It gives an alternative account of what’s happening.”
This account is directed at English-speaking foreigners and is often sharply at odds with what consumers of CNN and the BBC would otherwise hear. It comes out of the state-sponsored Iranian media at a time when state-sponsored American media is being beamed to Iran with increasing urgency. As Iran becomes a focus of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, the U.S. has begun pumping money into “public diplomacy” efforts in Iran. This past summer, Congress approved $66 million to expand the U.S.’s satellite broadcasting to Iran and to support dissidents both inside and outside the country.
Other Western media is being directed toward Iran as well. An active Iranian-American community, based primarily in California, runs a number of satellite TV stations aimed at Iranians that are highly critical of the Iranian government. CNN is widely accessible in Iran, and the BBC plans to launch a Persian station in 2008.
This attention has provoked a variety of responses from the Iranian audience. Some are cynical about their government and are sympathetic to the messages they receive from abroad, says William Beeman, an anthropology professor at Brown University who has written extensively on Iran and the Middle East. Most are highly skeptical of Western media, as they are of Iranian state media. But others in the country, including the Iranian government itself, are trying to counter the negative portrayals that they see in Western media. Part of this effort is through media broadcast around the world in dozens of languages, including English.
To date, Iran’s two main forays into the Western media are through Sahar TV, a satellite station available in Europe, and the Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Both are state-run, part of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, and both combine hard news with biting criticism of the West generally and America and Israel in particular.
Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting’s World Service, the English version of which began in 1956, now broadcasts in 27 languages. Since the 1979 revolution, “elaborating on the revolution’s stances and the ideals of the Islamic Republic system were put high on the English radio’s agenda,” according to the IRIB Web site. Today, the English station broadcasts for seven hours each day and can be heard online or through short-wave radio.
According to Derakhshanbeh, the Iranian newscaster in Tehran, there are no figures on who is tuning in to the Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Its Web site says the station receives about 170 letters per month from around the world, including Europe, South Asia and, occasionally, the United States.
“We don’t have a target audience as such,” Derakhshanbeh says. “We broadcast for anyone who cares to listen – for whoever wants to know what’s happening in the Middle East from our perspective, an alternative perspective to generally what the Western broadcasters put out.”
Iranians have legitimate concerns about how their nation is represented in the dominant media. The theocratic regime’s restriction of the press and crackdowns on dissent are well-documented, but Iran is not the stifled, extremist country it is made out to be, say people familiar with the country.
“I spent more than seven years in Iraq and know firsthand what a totalitarian dictatorship looks and acts like. Iran is not such a nation,” wrote former weapons inspector Scott Ritter in The Nation after a recent trip to Iran.
Besides presenting a general picture of Iran as threatening and oppressive, the media propagates information – particularly in regards to Iran’s nuclear program – that is simply false, says Beeman.
“Even people who one would consider to be intelligent people and top U.S. officials who are announced on Western television as being experts on Iran are frequently really badly informed or they’re just lying,” he says.
Beeman and Ritter both emphasize the vibrancy of Iranian society, which they say the West largely ignores. Beeman points to Iran’s internationally recognized film industry as evidence that the society is healthier than it is portrayed. Ritter calls Iran a “fully functioning capitalist society,” which has produced great wealth for many Iranians who will not easily then turn their backs on the regime.
But this perspective is rarely found in Western media.
“Even the best examples of [American] journalism are biased,” says Hossein Derakhshan, an Iranian-born journalist and blogger who has lived in Canada since 2000. “They are biased against Cuba, they are biased against Iran, biased against Venezuela and a few other countries. So of course I would expect something from these countries as a response [to the Western media].”
Derakhshan by no means idealizes the Iranian government – his blog has been censored in Iran since 2004 for its criticism of the regime – but he would like to see Iran more able to counter the West. He predicts that with the increase in Western media coming into Iran, the Iranian government will step up its attempts to promote its message abroad.
“Iran has money, they have resources, they could easily bring in experts, and they could start a good PR war,” he says. “If Al-Jazeera can do that, then Iran can do it.”
But if Iran has the potential to promote itself to the West, it has yet to do so effectively, says Beeman. “Iranians have an extremely hard time representing anything that contradicts some of the very negative things that are said about them in the U.S. press. So both the Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Sahar TV are just little blips in the international media that are trying to somehow correct the record.
“Sometimes I think they aren’t especially effective. A lot of times what they end up doing is just launching parallel attacks against the United States.”
These attacks, which target the United States and Israel in particular, can be jarring. The IRIB’s Web site, for example, recently included an article on Zionist collusion with the Nazis and a sloppily researched piece on Jewish/Zionist control of the mainstream media. (Jewish media-mogul Rupert Murdoch was referred to as Robert.) Sahar TV was banned in France in February 2005 for alleged anti-Semitism.
The Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s newscasts are peppered with rhetoric bound to provoke emotional responses. “The Zionist usurpers have stepped up their atrocities,” began one recent report on violence in Gaza.
The station also devotes an hour each day to a program called “The Voice of Justice,” which its Web site bills as “a campaign against the U.S. and its interventionist policies” directed at “all truth-seeking Americans.” The program, which often features American experts and scholars, addresses topics such as “Economic Deficiency in the U.S.,” “The US Adverse Foreign Policy” and “Media Distortion in the U.S.”
Regardless of the legitimacy of its criticisms of America, Beeman says the stations’ strident approach is failing.
“If they were trying harder to present a more positive view of Iranian life and Iranian culture rather than just simply trying to counter the negative attacks of the United States, I think they might find themselves better able to reach the U.S. audience,” he said.
“These are publicity problems, and I guess part of the difficulty is that Iran doesn’t know how to market itself in the West.”
Reaching the West has proven difficult for Middle Eastern broadcasters, even those with a much less adversarial tone. Al Jazeera, the TV news network based in Qatar, launched its highly anticipated English channel on November 15. Al Jazeera, which boasts that it is criticized by both Western and Middle Eastern governments, pledges to “adhere to the journalistic values of honesty, courage, fairness, balance, independence, credibility and diversity.”
In the first few weeks of its English station, Al Jazeera was compared to the BBC and Sky News and won praise for its in-depth reports on Darfur, the election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the assassination of a Lebanese minister.
Yet Al Jazeera has been unable to secure a spot on any American cable services and is only accessible to American viewers through two Internet subscription services. If the stigma of this flashy, independent, Western-style channel is too much for American providers, it’s hard to see how Iranian state-sponsored media could ever gain a foothold here.
Meanwhile, mutual suspicion characterizes exchanges between Iran and the United States. Few Iranian journalists are allowed into the United States, and few American journalists are based in Iran. Into this vacuum has poured the ambitions and animosity of two governments that have clashed for decades.
“It’s the demonization of a country that has really taken a hold in people’s minds,” Beeman explains. “It’s much easier to fall into the habit of thinking that everybody who lives outside is just worse than we are, and when the government itself feeds that kind of prejudice then it’s quite easy for people to believe it.”
He’s speaking of America’s view of Iran, but he could just as easily be talking about Iranian demonizing of America. Both countries are engaged in attack campaigns, even if the odds are uneven. In the battle over the airwaves, America clearly has the upper hand. But it’s far less clear whom either country’s media strategy is benefiting.
Emily McNeill is a junior journalism major who, if she wasn’t already, is now being tracked by the NSA. Email her at emcneil1[at]ithaca.edu.