Arab media and the Iranian Elections

The Iranian authorities have imposed harsh restrictions on foreign media, confining journalists to their hotel rooms and workplaces and shutting down offices of news organizations. Arab media was not exempt from harassment, but like all things Iranian in the Middle East, the opinion is always divided.
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Thousands of supporters of Iran's hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wave national flags during a massive rally to celebrate his victory in the presidential elections in Tehran's Valiasr square on June 14, 2009. © Getty Images

BEIRUT, June 17, 2009 (MENASSAT) –  In an attempt to block reporting on the massive protests that have erupted across Iran following the country’s election on June 12, which named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad president for the second time, the Iranian authorities have imposed harsh restrictions on foreign media.

The media blackout on the rallies was reportedly ordered by Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance - the agency which accredits foreign media working in the country. In its order, the Ministry prohibited foreign journalists and Iranians working with foreign media to cover the protests, AP reported. Press cards are to have been declared invalid. 

“I wouldn’t speculate about why they’ve done this,” The National newspaper quoted John Pullman, the head of output at Al Jazeera English, as saying. “They say it is because they cannot guarantee the security of people on the streets.”

The decision coincided with the announcement from Iran’s powerful Guardian Council that it is willing to recount some of the votes from last week’s disputed elections poll. 

But Ahmadinejad’s main rival Mir Hossein Mousavi and other candidates have called for a re-run, referring to the offer from the electoral authority as an "astonishing charade."

At least seven people have been left dead in clashes with the security forces in the rallies that have taken place over the past days.

On the airwaves

Meanwhile, Iranian authorities have stepped up its clampdown on the media, reportedly arresting up to 10 Iranian journalists, jamming satellite TV stations, blocking opposition and social networking websites, and disrupting text messaging and mobile phone service.

The BBC’s Persian-language news channel has reported heavy jamming of one of its satellites that the corporation uses to broadcast BBC Persian in Iran and in the Middle East. The BBC’s satellite technicians concluded that the interference was coming from Iran.

Needles to say, Iranian authorities have been accusing western media of inflaming the public; President Ahmadinejad in his victory press conference was clear and keen on waving a finger at western media.

Arab media has also been targeted in the crackdown. On Sunday, Iranian authorities ordered a one-week long shut down of the Dubai-based Arab news channel Al Arabiya's Tehran bureau. 

Al Arabiya's correspondent in Tehran, Diaa al-Nasseri, explained the incident live on air, saying that the Iranian Ministry of Information requested him to change a news report. Then he was informed that the bureau would be closed for a week.

Dr Nabil al Khatib, the executive editor of Al Arabiya, said no official explanation had been given for the ban, leaving Al-Arabiya to assume that the order had to do with the channel’s election coverage.

“We passed the first pictures of the demonstration,” he said. “I won’t say they are exclusive, but lots of media organizations were cautious in showing these pictures, worried that the Iranian authorities would be unhappy.

“We passed those pictures and we passed intensive reactions to the results of the elections, so the authorities in Iran wanted to make things more difficult.”

Al-Arabiya has been reporting from its Dubai headquarters since Sunday, when the ban went into effect. 

In response to the Iranian election results, Gulf Arab governments offered a half-hearted reaction to the declared victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"The Saudis are paranoid about Iran and have even more reason to be so after Ahmadinejad's reelection," Reuters quoted a Western diplomat in Riyadh as saying. "They had no illusions that anything there would be a major policy change."

Some Saudi media reports referred to the election results as undemocratic, but this hardly comes as a surprise. Iranian influence in the region is in immediate competition with Saudi influence, and the rift between the two countries practically dictates the politics of the Middle East. The two countries often battle each other with back and forth accusations.

"Falsifying the results is the easiest of tasks for a religious-security regime that does not believe in leaving to chance what it considers to be its right," wrote Abdul-Rahman al-Rashed in the Saudi daily Asharq al-Awsat.

But the tone towards Tehran from those Gulf states with Shi’ite minorities, tended to be of a warmer character. 

In Bahrain, an island-kingdom with a Shi'ite majority, and a Sunni minority ruling monarchy, where Shi'ite's complaints of discrimination sometimes spill violently to the streets, some Shi'ite commentators hailed Ahmadinejad.

"He managed to convey the image of a modest and simple president, which appeals to people (in the region). If he was a candidate in any Arab country against a current president, the public would vote for him," wrote Kassim Hussain in al-Wasat newspaper.

The United Arab Emirates sent congratulations to the winner in the elections in a statement carried on the official news agency, knowing that the UAE is locked in a dispute with the Islamic Republic over the ownership of three islands in the Gulf.

Lebanese Al-Manar news network featured the report “Ahmadinejad Congratulated on his Landslide Victory” on June 13, in which it outlined the congratulatory messages to Ahmadinejad sent by the presidents of Syria, and Venezuela and political figures in Lebanon.

On the Net

Apart from the media, Iran has also attempted to muzzle social networking sites which have become important tools for Iranian protesters to communicate with each other and the outside world in an increasingly government-controlled media environment.

The Internet censorship think-tank OpenNet Initiative reported on Tuesday that social media sites YouTube, Twitter, DailyMotion and Facebook, have been blocked in Iran for the past few days.

Yet, as Iran braces for demonstrations, footage depicting cars on fire, injured protesters, and street chaos continue to trickle out through these sites with the help of various censorship circumvention tools, showing how difficult it is for governments to control the flow of information these days.

On Wednesday, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, a force controlled by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, put out a warning addressed to online media outlets.

In a statement made on Iranian state-run news, the Revolutionary Guards said that Iranian websites and bloggers must remove any postings that "create tension" or can face legal consequences.

Regardless of the politics behind this battle, this series of demonstrations, provides another concrete example of how new communication tools are reasserting their crucial role in organizing for change, while states are becoming more aware of the importance in tackling the online media in order to tackle the-streets.