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23 June 2021
A study of the political function of the media in contemporary Iran

“Globalization and Media Development: A Promise of or a Menace to Civil Society?”

2011 July 21

Reza Parchizadeh

Is “media development” a promise of or a menace to civil society? On the one hand, some have argued that it is a promise. Through the development of the media, “Our specialist and fragmented civilization of center-margin structure is suddenly experiencing an instantaneous reassembling of all its mechanized bits into an organic whole. This is the new world of the global village” (McLuhan, 1964: 107). On the other hand, some have argued that it is a menace. “Gramsci, an Italian communist in a fascist nation, put forth the notion that the dominating class mitigates class conflict by controlling the culture of the working class through such social institutions as education, religion, and the mass media, particularly through profit-driven, private ownership. He claimed that the media were used to suppress dissent and promote the ruling economic elites” (McPhail, 2009: 23).

Still, between these two extremes, some others have taken a more cautious stance towards the issue of media development and globalization: “There is a profusion of smaller and larger initiatives aimed at reducing various social and economic inequalities including those associated with the media and communication industries. In our view, however, it is unlikely that the new institutional forums that have emerged since the WSIS will be equal to addressing sources of inequality in areas such as governance, financing, media diversity, freedom of speech, and human rights” (Mansell & Nordenstreng, 2007: 15).

With regard to the abovementioned pronouncements, in this article, by focusing on a particular case study, namely contemporary Iran, I will argue that “globalization”, as the most recently-proposed paradigm of media and communication in the West, in effect proves to be inadequate for an all-inclusive comprehension of the role and assessment of the practices of the media in different parts of the globe; and that in contemporary realty, media development could be employed as a double-edged sword fighting both for and against the ideals of freedom of speech and civil society.

Since this argument needs contextualization, I will first provide a brief history of the context by drawing upon any published or publicized material available as well as on my personal observations and experiences as an Iranian citizen. On June 12, 2009, Iran held its tenth presidential election with the then state-sanctioned Extreme-Rightist incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad running against the Reformists Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi and the Conservative Mohsen Reza’ii. On that day, a considerable number of polls in different parts of the country, by announcing they had run out of ballots, quite a few hours before the appointed closing-time, refused to register the votes of the crowds standing in long lines (Balatarin, 2009, YouTube, 2010), and when the people showed their protest by refusing to leave the site, the police dispersed them by use of force. Less than five hours after the election, the Ministry of Interior announced that with two-thirds of the votes counted, Ahmadinejad, with 62% of the votes, was ahead of his major rival Mousavi, with 34%. Next morning, the said Ministry, maintaining the same ratio, announced, through the state-run national radio and television, IRIB, that Ahmadinejad had won the election by a landslide of 24.5 million votes against the 13.2 million votes of Mousavi (Karrubli’s voter turnout, contemptuously, was announced to be even less than the total number of the null votes!); and the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, by congratulating Ahmadinejad outright, virtually consolidated that statement.

Immediately before and after the announcement, a huge number of the reformists, intellectuals, and journalists were arrested by the police (ICHRI, 2011), and quite a few newspapers were shut down by the government as well. Soon after, independent research such as the “Preliminary Analysis of the Voting Figures in Iran’s 2009 Presidential Election” by Chatham House and the Institute of Iranian Studies of University of St Andrews (Ansari, 2009), and Sadeq Saba’s analysis of the Iranian election for BBC (BBC, 2009), demonstrated substantial anomalies and inconsistencies in the announcements of the Islamic Republic’s Ministry of Interior with respect to the voter turnout. Later, Mousavi’s campaign manager and member of election monitoring committee, Ali-Akbar Mohtashamipour, declared that the number of the ballots printed by the Ministry of Interior had far exceeded the number of the eligible voters (YouTube, 2009).

All this, along with many other incidents, generated the uneasy feeling in a substantial sector of the Iranian public that they had been defrauded of their electoral victory (largely, if not definitively, consonant with the cause of the reformist Mousavi, and to a lesser extent, Karrubi), and thus their civil rights through a state-engineered electoral coup; which in turn led to first a week of peaceful demonstrations for the nullification of the election and then, after the violent crackdown of the demonstrations by the regime, more than six months of large-scale high-pitched street struggle in Iran, especially in Tehran, between the protesting people at the one end and the suppressing military and paramilitary troops at the other end of the tug of war. In the meantime, the media, especially the ‘developed’ new generation of them, played so significant a role for both the maintenance of the regime’s standpoint on the one hand and the promotion of the popular cause on the other that it could be claimed that this struggle first and foremost proved to be a war of the media.

Regardless of all the subsequent unaccounted for or documented allegations and debates on the rigging of the election, the overwhelming performance of the Islamic Republic during the days to come points to the fact that it had already had reason enough beforehand to consider it pertinent to brace itself and to buckle to take serious measures virtually in no time against any hint of dissonance on the part of the public. Since the very commencement of the struggle, or to put it more accurately, just before that, the Islamic Republic resolved to maintain a total public communication blackout to hinder the free flow of information (Blair, 2009). To begin with, during the night before the election, cell phones, especially their SMS service, went dead in Tehran (Zamaaneh, 2009). When gradually and intermittently they started to work again after forty days, they turned into a universal, clandestine means of persecution. It has been confirmed that the Nokia-Siemens Networks (NSN), purportedly breaching the “International Code of Conduct for Technology Transfer” (Hamelink, 2001: 394), in 2008 provided the Islamic Republic with a product called the “Monitoring Centre” that was later used for the hearing, filtering, and monitoring of the cell phone system during the demonstrations, which eventually lead to the arrest of a large number of the Iranian political activists as well as ordinary citizens (Cellan-Jones, 2009, Esfandiari, 2009, Farrar, 2010).

In a crackdown that reportedly cost 700 million dollars for the regime (Parchami, 2009), the World Wide Web service was severely blocked as well during this time. Access to the most ordinary Internet applications such as mailboxes was denied by the state-controlled service providers. The websites of BBC Farsi, VOA Persian, Al Jazeera, and, to a lesser extent, CNN, for their rather exclusive concentration on the ongoing affairs in Iran, were subjected to the harshest restrictions by the Islamic Republic authorities. The foreign news agencies in Iran such as ABC News, Al Arabiya, ARD, BBC, RAI, and ZDF were faced with a range of difficulties form the shutting down of their offices to the assault and temporary arrest of their correspondents or the confiscation of their properties. Also, the extent of access to Web 2.0 social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube came virtually to naught at that time.

In addition, the regime aired expensive-to-generate and tremendously powerful jamming signals reportedly with a frequency rate of more than 1000 gigahertz (Antiparasite, 2009) – much stronger than what the Iranian Communication Company could generate – against the programs of the satellite service providers such as Eutelsat, Deutsche Welle, and BBC (Jahannews, 2009), causing a satellite blackout as well. Unauthenticated rumor had it that the jamming signals were generated by the Russian equipment installed on the Milad Tower, the world’s fifth tallest communication tower (435 m), in Tehran. It was also said that they were aired from different sites in Tehran neighborhoods such as Lavizan, Tehranpars, Ekbatan, Shahrak-e Qarb, and Jaam-e Jam (the center of IRIB). The health complications caused by these unwholesome signals for the citizens of Tehran were of such magnitude that they even spurred the usually rubber stamp parliament to step forward and publicly hold the government responsible for the dire consequences of airing them (Iranianuk, 2009).

Iranian Citizens Caught amidst the Deadly War of Radio Microwaves

In the meantime, the state-run IRIB, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Broadcasting company, by initially ignoring the street clashes, stuffed its six national and other international TV channels, including the influential Arabic-language Al Alam station and the English-language Press TV, with 24-hour programs showcasing the state-planned and heavily financed “popular” celebrations of the “divine” and “anti-Western” victory of Ahmadinejad who, during these nationwide televised celebrations, impudently called the protestors a bunch of “weed and straw” (June 14, 2009). A few weeks into the demonstrations, however, in the face of the inevitability of acknowledging the continuous million-turnout mass protests, the IRIB, by changing its hitherto exclusive policy, also added to its agenda the “selective” and highly “interpretive” coverage of the demonstrations by misrepresenting, vilifying, and labeling them “endemic sedition engineered by the Western powers”, and manipulating and editorializing the news of the demonstrations both to downplay the brutality of the suppression and to falsify the rate of mortality. For instance, Press TV frequently invited high-status officials and spin doctors such as Seyed Mohammd Marandi, head of the Institute for North American and European Studies (INAES), to distort the image of the demonstrators before the international audiences.

On the “real” popular side, however, things were working differently. Any instant the cell phone blackout, due to technical or economic reasons, subsided, the cell phones of the citizens were interactively flooded with text messages containing the information on the assembly sites for demonstrations; the pass-to-next eyewitness news of what had happened or was happening, especially with regard to the mobilization of the military and paramilitary troops; and the extremely witty, political jokes about the regime.

BBC Farsi and VOA Persian satellite TV stations used to broadcast round-the-clock coverage and interpretation of the events in Iran; and the people, whenever possible, would intermittently update their news of the incidents through different frequency channels that were generated by the said stations and other satellite service providers concerned with the affairs in Iran. These stations also provided the Iranian citizens with telephone and Internet platforms to convey their pieces of news, express their opinions, and share their audio-visual data on the events.

During the protests, the Iranian blogsphere, as a powerful instrument of citizen journalism, played a most significant role in informing the people, weather inside or outside of Iran, of the events. “In Iran, bloggers have for years been rated as the most trustworthy source of news because they have been difficult to control by the Islamic government” (Allan, 584). The public enlightenment that such individual entrepreneurs as Hossein Derakhshan (Mashreghnews, 2010) and Shiva Nazar-Ahari (Radiofarda, 2009) brought about through their weblogs alarmed the Islamic Republic to such an extent that it started to persecute and condemn them on show trials for “conspiring against the Islamic Republic” or “waging war against God” to long years of prison, exile, and exclusion from public activity. The Iranian diasporic website culture also considerably contributed to the disclosing of many behind-the-scene facts about the protests. For instance, the confidential 27-page report of Tehran’s Military Prosecuting Attorney on the torture, rape, and murders of the arrested protestors in Kahrizak House of Detention leaked out through the diasporic website Rahesabz (Rahesabz, 2010).

All the same, the most instrumental interfaces for the conveyance of the voice of the Iranian people to the world proved to be the Web 2.0 platforms of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter (for a list of a variety of articles on the so-called “Iranian Twitter Revolution” see the Zero Anthropology link provided in the bibliography), which, generally through proxy servers, offered the Iranian citizens an opportunity to upload their pieces of films and pictures of the demonstrations. The sheer visualness of most of these interfaces that graphically and without any distracting commentary laid before the eyes of the world the ongoing events in Iran such as the target-shooting of the young female protestor Neda Agha-Soltan by the Basij militia ; the riot police and the Basij brutalizing the demonstrators ; and the riot police vandalizing the city of Tehran in order to incriminate the protestors , was arguably the most prominent factor that in spite of all impediments and in the face of severe censorship drew international attention to the trials and tribulations of the Iranian people in their efforts to bring home their civil rights.

Target-shooting-to-Death of Neda Agha-Soltan on June 20, 2009, by the Islamic Republic Security Forces

Now, to lodge such facts in a theoretical perspective, it has been proposed that mass media have taken a reactionary “dominance” (McQuail, 2001: 291) or “interventionist” (Sparks, 2001: 357) stance against individuals. “There is a widespread view that mass media tend to isolate individuals from face to face interaction and destroy community bonds. The old Lasswell model of communication as a linking source, message, channel, receiver, desired behavior change, and feedback has tended to reinforce this notion that the media have enormous power to isolate people from social networks and then manipulate them” (White, 2001: 227).

In line with this, Hamelink has also argued that “Today, many policies and programs that are launched by the developing countries are reactive to the technological environment. They are strongly inspired by the idea that the imperatives of technological development determine social arrangements. Such policies and programs are designed to address the implications that technological innovations may have. Reactive policies and programs are designed to cope with, or adapt to, the consequences of technical change, rather than anticipating (and so influencing) these consequences” (Hamelink, 2001: 401).

This “fundamentalist counteroffensive”, rooted in a reactionary counter-discourse, which could serve as the sixth angle to Nordenstreng’s quintuple classification of the “stages” of media development and policy (Nordenstreng, 2010) preceding and following the MacBride Report, demonstrates the truth that many “recommendations [of this report] remain unimplemented” (Nordenstreng, 2010: 25) to this day, and that the ideal of media development aimed at achieving a civil society run in accordance with human rights still proves to be far from consolidated, not to mention realized, on a global scale.

Nevertheless, if Marshall McLuhan’s (1911-80) classic maxim that “The medium is the message” (1964: 7), which could be regarded as the inverted modern translation of the much older adage by the Jesuit theologian Hermann Busenbaum (1600-68) “Cum finis est licitus, etiam media sunt licita (The end justifies the means) [emphasis added]” (The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 1999: 397), should be taken into account as the description of a valid paradigm, it can be claimed that the two different classes of the media that the elements of the Iranian society employed to further their ends during the upheavals of 2009, in turn delineate the two different approaches – and thus the two disparate epistemologies – that they have been cultivating toward the idea of “society”; which is, while the “Leviathanic” (Hobbes, 1651), “Utopian” (Popper, 1966: 11), and “Centripetal” (McQuail, 2001: 291) massive IRIB proves to be the canonical and ex cathedra mouthpiece of the vox magistrati – or vox dei? – of the Islamic Republic, the “foucauldian” (Foucault, 2002), “piecemeal” (Popper, 11), and “centrifugal” (McQuail, 291) diminutive media such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and weblogs are the conveyors of the vox populi and the free-ranging messengers of the Iranian “public sphere” (Habermas, 1989).

Through the example on which I elaborated in this study, I hope I have been able to draw the attention of the reader to the fact that the reductionist, or rather, overgeneralizing, paradigm of “globalization”, as presented from a Western perspective, characteristically permeated with the ideals of “liberalism”, “democracy”, and “free flow of the information” (Thussu, 2000: 55), in effect proves to be incapable of taking into account the workings of the realpolitik implemented in different and distinct parts of the “globe” with respect to media. In fact, as Sparks has argued: “The facts of global interconnectedness are not enough to establish the validity of the globalization paradigm” (2007: 150), and “… the globalization paradigm appears to be more a popular rhetoric than a guide to serious analysis” (2007: 184).

In the end, to voice my conclusion in the words of the so-called “milestone of the great media debate” (Mansell & Nordenstreng, 2007), i.e. the MacBride Report, “Everything will depend on the use made of the new resources – that is, on crucial decisions, and on the question of who will make the decisions. Communication can be an instrument of power, a revolutionary weapon, a commercial product, or a means of education; it can serve the ends of either liberation or of oppression, of either the growth of individual personality or of drilling human beings into uniformity” (MacBride, 1980: 253).


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