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Misreporting Iran


Rouhani visiting Khamenei after the latters prostate surgery, September 10, 2014 Courtesy Of The Supreme Leader
Rouhani visiting Khamenei after the latters prostate surgery, September 10, 2014 Courtesy Of The Supreme Leader

Complaints of media bias seem to be reaching a fever pitch—from conservatives and liberals alike. Right-wingers accuse a broad swath of the press of trying to undermine the presidency of Donald Trump. Left-wingers lament the airtime and credence outlets give to Trump supporters. Both groups object to what the media report and how they report it, but they point fingers at different culprits. Neither seemed to notice last week that one big story was narrated the same way by virtually every outlet: the presidential election in a country where chants of "Death to America" are a routine occurrence.

"In the closing stretch of Iran's presidential race, it's a moderate reformer against a hard-line cleric," PBS NewsHour reported in the run-up to Iran's May 19 election. Those who know anything about life in Iran—or how many of its citizens have been deprived of it in the last few years—should have bristled to discover that the "moderate reformer" was incumbent president Hassan Rouhani. With 57 percent of the vote, he soundly beat "hard-line" challenger Ebrahim Raisi, who garnered 39 percent. (Two other candidates split the rest.) And stories announcing his win invariably included in the headline or first sentence at least one of the same adjectives PBS used. "Iranian President Hassan Rouhani wins re-election in victory for moderates," CNN announced. "Iran's moderate president Hassan Rouhani secured his re-election this morning," CBS News declared, while ABC News reported: "Iran's President Rouhani wins reelection by wide margin, giving the moderate cleric another term to see out agenda." An Associated Press story that ran in thousands of outlets was headlined "Iran's president trounces hard-liner to secure second term."
It wasn't just "mainstream" or "liberal" media that covered the story this way. "Iran's President Hassan Rouhani won re-election by a wide margin Saturday, giving the moderate cleric a second four-year term" was the first sentence of the election report on the Fox News website. The Wall Street Journal began its coverage thus: "Moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani won re-election by a wide margin Saturday, defeating a hard-line challenger .  .  ."

You might think that reporters simply forgot to put the word "relative" in front of "moderate" in describing Rouhani—a moderate in Iran could be very different from a moderate in the United States, after all. Rouhani is a cleric who, as head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, was a leader in brutally ending student protests in Tehran in 1999. He stated then, "Our revolution needs a thorough cleanup," and declared the regime would "crush mercilessly and monumentally any move" made by "these opportunists and riotous elements." The government injured thousands and killed up to two dozen. But his opponent Raisi was part of a four-man "death committee" that executed as many as 30,000 dissidents in 1988.

The media did not frame the election, however, as a choice between the lesser of two evils. NBC News began a story the day before the election with this summary of the stakes: "Iranian women have made significant strides under moderate President Hassan Rouhani, but many fear that progress could stall if a hardline rival wins Friday's presidential election." The opening sentence of the New York Times's election report echoed that view: "Riding a large turnout from Iran's urban middle classes, President Hassan Rouhani won re-election in a landslide on Saturday, giving him a mandate to continue his quest to expand personal freedoms and open Iran's ailing economy to global investors."

Rouhani has brought "significant" progress to Iranian women and is on a "quest to expand personal freedoms"? One woman elected to parliament last year was stopped from taking her seat, apparently because a picture of her without a head scarf surfaced. It's true that during the campaign, Rouhani paid lip service to the notion of easing prohibitions in one of the most restrictive societies on earth. He did the same thing in the race that brought him into office in 2013—and went on to prove his words were empty. Freedom House summarized the situation in the country earlier this year: "Human rights abuses continued unabated in 2016, with the authorities carrying out Iran's largest mass execution in years and launching a renewed crackdown on women's rights activists." Iran is second only to China in executions.

In analyzing the election, the Wall Street Journal claimed, "Many Iranians gravitate toward Mr. Rouhani because of his relatively tolerant views on freedom of expression." Rouhani offered a self-centered thanks for his win on Twitter: "Great nation of Iran, you are the winner of the election." But the social media site is banned in Iran—only those who have figured out how to get around the censorship could read the tweet. As Freedom House notes, "News and analysis are heavily censored" in Iran. As are all forms of art. The nonprofit gives some examples: "In June 2016, filmmaker Hossein Rajabian, his brother, musician Mehdi Rajabian, and an associated musician, Yousef Emadi, began serving three-year prison sentences after being arrested in 2015 for allegedly distributing underground music. In October, the writer and activist Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee was taken to jail to begin serving a six-year sentence for her authorship of an unpublished story about the practice of execution by stoning in Iran."

Opponents of the government not only have trouble running for office in Iran—candidates must be approved by the Guardian Council, whose members are appointed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Iran's chief justice, who is himself appointed by Khamenei—some of them can't even be mentioned. Former president Mohammad Khatami backed the Green Movement that sprung up after the 2009 reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad looked to have been fixed. Iranian media are not permitted to mention Khatami's name, quote his words, or show his picture—and he supported Rouhani in the 2013 election. Rouhani promised during that race to free Green Movement leaders under house arrest; they remain in captivity and haven't even faced trials. No wonder most Iranian voters mentioned in Western media over the last week wouldn't give reporters their full names. The New York Times, for example, quoted a woman "who did not want to be identified for security reasons."

The election doesn't look to have been fought mainly over freedom, either. "Raisi has refrained from raising any of the social issues his faction usually cares so much about, such as Islamic dress codes and segregation of men and women, as they might put off potential voters," the New York Times noted, reporting that Raisi "campaigned as a corruption fighter and called on Iran to solve its own economic problems without help from foreigners." He promised to offer more in government handouts, but voters rejected them. Rouhani helped secure the nuclear deal that has allowed Iran to do increased business with foreigners, and he campaigned on the notion that he could open up the economy even more. When Rouhani took office, Iran's unemployment rate was 16 percent; it's now 11 percent.
Many commentators claimed the United States could learn from the story they spun of Rouhani's win. One New York Times piece leading up to the election carried the headline "Iran Has Its Own Hard-Line Populist, and He's on the Rise." The national-affairs correspondent for the Nation tweeted that the "worldly & moderate candidate prevailed" in an election with high voter turnout and said, "Lesson for the US!" Jane O'Meara Sanders, the wife of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie, re-tweeted the message and added, "Iranians show the world how it's done." Neither mentioned—and it was usually buried in media coverage of the election—that the president of Iran has to answer to someone far more powerful than the United States Congress or Supreme Court. Ultimate hardliner Ali Khamenei remains the head of state in Iran. Days before the election, Rouhani made a point of mentioning "the exalted leader, whose hand I am willing to kiss dozens of times."
Kelly Jane Torrance is deputy managing editor of The Weekly Standard.

Source: The Weekly Standard, Jun 05, 2017



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