Interview with Mehdi Jami; Media and Quest for Democracy in Iran
“The logic of Green media is far more advanced than that of BBC and VOA”
8 Jun 2011
■ Ali Mohtadi & Shervin Nekuee
It is almost two years since the inception of the Green Movement in the history of Iran. This movement was born in the immediate aftermath of the 2009 presidential elections and as a result of the perseverance of Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the two candidates protesting against the results of the election with the subsequent massive support from society. After three decades, this movement managed to once again mobilise different segments of the people of Iran in Tehran and large cities, and take them to the streets to reclaim their political and citizenship rights. It seemed that the people of Iran believed that like the 1979 revolution, the political fate of the country would be determined on the streets.
However, the Islamic Republic regime managed to put an end to the protests by resorting to violence against the demonstrators, detaining the prominent figures of the two contending presidential candidates, establishing a security and military atmosphere and months of struggle with the protestors. What is for sure is that after two years since the Green Movement started, the deep dissatisfaction among people regarding the absence of citizenship rights has not faded away. On the other hand, the impressive actions of the activists of this movement such as their demonstrations, strikes and coherent organised political work has been reduced to the lowest minimum of what it could be.
What measures and strategies are there for the Green Movement to bring to fruition the hopes that this movement has created in the hearts of those who love freedom? On the occasion of the anniversary of the demonstration of millions of people of Iran to reclaim their citizenship and civil rights, TehranReview interviews Iranian theorists and scholars.
In the third episode of this series of interviews, we spoke with Mehdi Jami, Iranian journalist, blogger, photographer and filmmaker. He was the first director and editor in chief of Radio Zamaneh since it was established in June 2006 until October 2008. He worked with BBC Persian Service from May 1996 to May 2006. Before working for the BBC, he was mainly involved in teaching Persian language and literature and working with the Great Islamic Encyclopaedia.
Given the events of the past two years and what the Green Movement has experienced since its inception, what do you think is the importance of media for this popular movement?
Whatever the Green Movement has, it owes it to the media! Quite recently, the results of a research in Tehran showed that the Greens have used Facebook more than other users of this small media. I think they have also been ahead of others in the use of YouTube. Maybe only in the area of blogging they came across new contenders, but they were almost pioneers in every other social media. Of course, a great part of this is due to the fact that the Greens were deprived of having paper media. Therefore, they have used the online media. This, however, reveals their cultural preparedness to use the new media.
I think in terms of media, as far as it concerns individual behaviour and even network behaviour, they have really excelled themselves and they have truly proved that if there is a people in the Middle East who is prepared for citizen journalism, it is for sure Iranians. The Greens pushed the Persian media to a new age in which media shifts from informing to networking, deliberation and dialogue.
“The Greens pushed the Persian media to a new age”
However, as far as it concerns big media, except at times when they conquered the BBC, they almost had no success at all! This is an important point to ponder. Structurally, the Greens claimed a space that other rivals neither paid attention to nor were interested in. Or they were missing the expertise or media resilience for it. However, with mainstream media, the predominant structures did not allow the birth of an independent Green media. This remains to be a huge obstacle. Therefore, contrary to what was expected, televisions were launched which did not have any Green characteristic or were not even political in its common sense such as the Man-o-to, but a Green television was never launched: there was no real media with proper audience. We neither got a Green television nor a Green radio. What was launched was born out of the previous structures which were predominantly party-oriented ones. Just in the same manner that Kurdish parties have their own channel, a political party in Iran now had its own TV. However, whereas Kurdish televisions have their own audience among their party followers/members, its Iranian counterpart has no audience at all. The Iranian audience is not oriented to party politics and is frustrated with partisan behaviour.
In fact, in the world of television, no one managed to find the sensitive spot of the Green audience. BBC was voicing its own concerns. The VOA cannot even say what it wants to say. The new partisan television, Rasa, could not respond to the needs and demands of the market. The older media generation’s problem is being outdated and incapable of making connections. All in all, the Green media was left with personal media or social networks. In other words, what the Greens experienced with small media could not be transformed into a television model, which should be a television for informing combined with networking.
I think this discursive obstacle has been a serious one. However, one of its reasons has been political. The Green leaders were not active and motivating, in a broad sense, in the field of media making.
Following the beginning of protests, the motto of “every citizen is one media” was raised and many warmly received it. However, transforming ordinary citizens to journalists, regardless of the issue of information, seems to have created some sort of a chaos in the media career: just about anyone who had the material and profession wherewithal did not provide an acceptable standard of work, in terms of professional standards, under the influence of the dominant media atmosphere. How do you see the role of citizen-journalists in enhancement or undermining the professional information career?
Whatever the Green movement has, it owes it to its citizen-journalists! However, this is only one part of the issue. The other part is that both the regime and the anti-Green opposition created a massive amount of “counter-news” to fundamentally incapacitate this source of information and make it unimportant. On the other hand, lack of timely training, i.e. citizen-journalists being untrained, made the situation even worse. Nonetheless, some efforts were made to bring in an element of critique of news items and trainings for content production to find its way into social networks. I think a certain collective consciousness has been engendered in social networks which has given credit to citizen productions. However, saying that this has led to chaos, it seems like a defect from an ordinary eye. On the other hand, it is something quite normal. In the shift between one system or period of news and the next system or period, there is always an episode of chaos, confusion or even opportunism, and fake productions. This chaos is a sign of a new order. That is nothing to worry about. However, it requires management. One has to think about it, recognise the chaos so that it can be led to the next level of forming the new order. The next order will undoubtedly be influenced by citizen-journalists. We have to be ready for it. This is an experienced path that the Greens have taken so far and it is irreversible.
In my opinion, state media such as the BBC and the VOA must learn from the small media and move from informing to networking. Even in their current model and with the best renovations and reforms they will not be able to succeed in the new age of media.
That our professionals may still be confused is again nothing strange. Professionals need to refresh themselves and learn. They should acquaint themselves with new methods and improve their tone and language in choosing their topics and make them more popular. This has not happened yet, though. I can give dozens of examples in which professional media have ignored the news items that people were interested in. This is a gap that has to be bridged. People from both sides of the gap can contribute to bridging this gap. Citizen-journalists who have a tendency towards a professional/trained understanding of their work and the professionals who show awareness of understanding the new media atmosphere can work together.
Given the political divisions among Iranians and old differences among different groups, how can a relatively impartial and professional news network increase the solidarity among people and at the same time attract the attention of people from other countries to Iran?
This is a very difficult issue. I do not believe in impartiality and I find it misleading, but I do firmly believe in fairness and seeing both sides of the story in news. This is the basis for civil and media ethics. This is however not something that we can see today in the Persian media. And it seems far to have such an all-encompassing inclusive media to form without a shift in discourse, unless we can assume that a small consistent group with excellent media capabilities and enough financial strength can pioneer in this work. I do not know such a group with high political goals and standard avoiding constant internal conflicts and bashing others. Even if they exist, they do not generally have a vision of modern media. And of course the farthest groups to such modern approaches in media are the political parties and groups, because as we know them today, they have short-term goals and they are generally pursuing propaganda and whatever they wish to do, it is definitely not promotion of media work. Therefore, you cannot expect them to play a role in media progress. Whatever work they do is outdated or cliché. Even when it has new looks it is dealing with media with the same old methods and in any case it reveals their lack of media literacy. In other words, our political groups have not yet realised the value of media work and lack the competence to use it.
As regards solidarity, the issue should first happen outside the media and then the media can become an embodiment or reflection of it. If the idea of solidarity is weak in the outside or is shaky, then naturally no media would come into existence based on it. I think the more practical model for it is to seek the improvement and promotion of solidarity between those citizens who are ready for it and advance it to a higher level, then to think of a broad solidarity. Let us assume that we have ten media outlets by and for ten different social segments with proper media atmosphere. If we establish this phase, then we will be more successful in implementing wider solidarity. Given the natural plurality among Iranians, this model will work better.
From another perspective, even now one can find groups which have gathered around some online media outlets and they are somehow finding their identity there and the work of that media is their referent index. These can be foundations for transcending models. However, the major issue is whether those groups believe in media promotion as part of their goals or not. The presence of a powerful media rival may give these media-groups the motivation for growth.
Regarding how people of other countries view Iran, it is a very much connected with Iranian communities in Europe and America and it is not simply the issue of media; although the media can help significantly. In other words, we need a media which can bring together members from Iranian communities which are more homogenous and create a synergy among them. This media can attract the attention of non-Iranians. However, right now, every group is struggling for its own particular goals without necessarily having a network of connections or news or liaison among them. Will such a media come into existence? I am hopeful although we may not see it in a very near future on the horizon.
Let us consider media outlets such as the BBC or VOA which have more means than other Persian media. To what extent can we see them consistent and committed in the charter of a serious media to the issue of informing people? We can now see that the VOA is embracing a more popular attitude as opposed to the BBC which is somewhat elitist.
I think the BBC has played an important part. This is undeniable. However, I do not generally see the mandate of the BBC to be informing people in terms of, for instance, helping the ideas of Mir-Hossein Mousavi. BBC is following the British outlook in the world, our region and Iran. We must not expect the BBC to have this function, just as we should not expect Radio Farda to be like this. I have even told my friends that Radio Farda should not approach the Green Movement unless to a certain extent, because it might be seen as representing the movement and this is not something to accept from Radio Farda. Nor is it to the interest of the movement. In other words, it will just be artificial. If the BBC was influential in the 1979 revolution, it was probably because our people did not have media capacities themselves and consciously or unconsciously the BBC had become the voice of the revolution. However, one must not have such an expectation from any of the media outside the country because there is so much media diversity that people can have their own networks and cater for their needs of information now. And they are actually doing this. Just consider the issue of news gathering. If we did not have the citizens voluntarily filming from their protests, no formal journalist from the BBC or from any other media outlets in Tehran or other cities could get any news out. All formal channels were closed and it was only the people who could informally let the news out.
“In my opinion, these state media can learn from the Green small media and move from informing to networking”
The case of the VOA is different. I think we should differentiate between a small narrow media current there with the dominant voice. The Parazit programme has managed to make connections with a huge group of the younger generations. This was more than anything else due to the personal initiative of the producers of the programme rather than the general policy of the VOA, because if this policy was there, sings of it should have been reflected in its other programmes too.
The VOA is currently under renovation and change. However, until now, it has had no role but in the periphery of the events, particularly because it has been compared with the BBC. The BBC made the VOA market stagnant in the 2009 elections of Iran. Now, I hope that changes in this network can take it up to speed with the BBC or make it a popular media for the people. Being popular is not bad in itself, but the fact that the elite does not view VOA a professional outlet is of course bad. Obtaining a positive view of the elite is what should be added to the popularity of the VOA.
However, the VOA also has its own policy and its own media mission and one cannot expect the VOA to function as a Green media. Nonetheless, I think if the media policies of Obama regarding being in touch with the people and hearing their voice, which was recently announced, is followed in the VOA and gets implemented, then I think the VOA has taken a huge step forward. Its current condition, as its managers and broadcasters admit, is not desirable. In the two years of the life of the Green Movement, I do not naturally find a prominent place for it. But tomorrow can be another day. In my opinion, these state media can learn from the Green small media and move from informing to networking. I mean in their current model, even with the best of renovations and reforms, they will not be successful.
Among the roles of a journalist one can point out the “discovery of truth”, a most prominent example of which can be seen in the Watergate issue. Why is it that after two years since the problematic presidential elections, no media or journalist has managed to do anything serious in terms of discovering the truth? Can we say that thirty years of suppression by the Islamic Republic has managed to eradicate these activities from the media? If this is so, what is the solution?
Apart from the debates of the past two years, the idea of investigative journalism in search of truth did not have any precedent in Iranian media. In Iran, we do have whistle-blowing such as what the Salam newspaper used to do or what the newspapers of the early years of the revolution did or what recently the Alef website does, but we do not have investigative journalism. Apart from a few exceptions here and there, this style of journalism does not have deep roots for the simple reason that we do not have independent journalism. In the contemporary period, since before the revolution, the context of our journalism was different from that of western journalism. For example, even if a journalist got word of some secret affair, they did not have the legal and juridical support and they would be easily put in prison. Even apolitical dissent would cause trouble for the journalist, let alone struggling with the powerful.
In the past two years, severe suppression has been an obstacle for the formation of certain forms of investigative journalism, except when the journalist leaves the country and again it has taken the form of whistle-blowing.
Mainstream Persian media outside the country are generally disconnected from the issues of the Iranian society and cannot therefore support this kind of journalism. Therefore, the issue becomes this: either the people who have the knowledge and the clues do not have the power to express it, or if they say it nobody supports them. Essentially, they cannot enter the matrix of power and there is no tradition for this type of journalism. The journalist, who can easily be labelled as a spy for its simplest work, cannot subsequently go into investigative journalism or curiosity in recording and revealing corruption and mismanagement in all its forms. I think if the ordinary people get involved in the media, they can take on the role of discovering the truth themselves, but that requires a different mechanism to become practical.
Considering the launch of networks such as “Man-o-to” and “Farsi1”, it seems that the future of media becomes like separated islands. What impact can this have on liberation political movements?
I think these should be accepted as media realities. The media is not only about politics. But what is happening is depoliticizing the people and the TV audience. This is of course dangerous for the future of the media and it is exactly what the “holy regime” in Iran seeks. The regime would warmly welcome any means to harness the politicization of the people and I believe they have no serious qualms with Farsi1 or Man-o-to.
As regards the current which is now influencing the Persian audience beyond our control, we should naturally be active and plan for it to bring in new media or renovate older media and overhaul them to revive a wave of countering depoliticizing. If news based media cannot go beyond this pitfall, they will lose the ground. Consequently, any voice seeking democratic developments would fade out or weaken. Using your terms, they become like islands and no one can hear their voice anymore. In the way of renovation or change, if these media fall in the trap of becoming like Man-o-to or Farsi1, it is another threat. However, if a more comprehensive outlook is adopted, there is a hope that changes may be in the right direction, so it can make the regime a little agitated and the audience would fall from the heaven of fake comfort in which they see the world as nothing is happening! To adopt that outlook is a delicate matter and it is necessary for media designers to talk about it at length.
Should liberation movements try to have their own media or should they have their share in every media?
It is practically so. The movement which does not have media is a dead movement. Of course, I said that the Green Movement has had its own media and particularly in the field of small citizen oriented media it has been successful and even pioneering from a modern media perspective. However, it has not created big comprehensive media outlets and we have not done so either. I mean neither the leaders have taken this matter seriously, nor the followers, the people, the investors and those who see the opportunities, have opened new paths. This worries me. However, this feeling and this demand is out there and it is strong and I believe it is like the beauty which does not bear remaining in concealment. It is no inconceivable that these satellites open some space in Iran for private televisions. These televisions will rapidly find their counterparts outside Iran among Iranians. Behind this dam, there is a massive force building up. I don’t know how but I know that certainly there are new and wonderful events in the field of television which are in the making. Television is the media of the future. Or I had better say televisions. Developments are not in the direction of creating “one” network. It will have diversity for the simple reason that future televisions depend on the audience. This makes them diverse.
“The movement which does not have media is a dead movement”
Most state media in the world are focussing on social issues. Should the Green Movement media behave like this or should it, in the absence of an independent Persian media, be more comprehensive?
I think after the Jomhouriyyat newspaper of Emad Baghi which was short-lived and after the Radio Zamaneh which was specifically focussed on social issues, the Persian media has now gone beyond a frontier which is in my opinion the frontier of future media. The more the media think about the audience and the audience takes a more active role in it, they become more social. Being politics-oriented is a flaw for media work and right now, media such as the BBC and the VOA are damaged because of this flaw. The media which primarily deals with politics will not be a comprehensive media and will be circling in the boring cycle of politics. If we want politics to find its right place, we must not let it take the place of everything else. Mainstream media are designed based on a discourse that narrates as if only politics is effective element in the world’s affairs. That is not so. In the real world, there are myriads of other factors which are impacting our life apart from politics and a comprehensive media must address all these issues to give us a balanced view of the world in which we live.
It is my conviction that for the Green media of any kind, issues related to the society, ideas, culture, the environment, education and school should be more important than for any other media outlet. This is how I understand “comprehensive media” in your question and not necessarily more political. Green media are also media and should not make the mistake that in order to take root, they should follow the model of older media. They should follow their pioneering path and always remain in tune with modern outlooks of media. If the world goes towards more social media further depending on the audience, then the Greens should follow suit with its Iranian flavour and carry on. This requires the Green media to be active in the debates on modern media. This would help them to avoid the pitfall of clichés and declining discourses and lets their initiatives have a theoretical media justification. A theoretical understanding will naturally give them confidence and they can have an impact on mainstream media too. The Greens should keep the media advantages that they have gained by experience and develop them.
Popular movements in the Middle East are not the hot topics of the world media. What can be seen in these movements is the strong and undeniable role of a media called Aljazeera, to the extent that this media has been transmitting even the tiniest pieces of news with the least of facilities despite the banning of its activities in the midst of most of these movements. Other Arab countries have struggled to imitate each other. If we had such a media network in Iran, would it be possible to have further success?
If we had an Aljazeera in Iran, there would be no need for protest or revolution! We want to reach a society in which networks such as Aljazeera are not taboos in the country or exceptions and they become the general model and an acceptable level for news media. Now, let us assume that in Afghanistan you had a Persian Aljazeera. Or, for example, the Tolo TV, which is their best television network, was taking on the role of Aljazeera and continuously covered the news of Iranian protests and its global credit attracted the attention of Persian speaking people and the rest of the world. I think the Iranian protests would seem different and it would have different outcomes and the pace of developments would be different. In response to earlier questions, I said that the absence of supporting structures has been a cause for investigative journalism not to take root in Iran. Having a Persian Aljazeera in a neighbouring country would give the protests a supporting media structure. This would naturally change the situation.
“If we had an Aljazeera in Iran, there would be no need for protest or revolution!”
A glance at the contemporary history of Arab countries shows that every media which has been established outside the Arab environment have eventually failed until the Aljazeera network and then Alarabiyya were established. This somehow shows that the people trust their own indigenous media more than media which are run from abroad. Can we extend this model for Iran or other Persian speaking countries? Can we say that until a media from inside Persian speaking countries is established, it cannot find the all-encompassing aspect or the impact of Aljazeera or Alarabiyya?
Let us address the issue based on the same idea of supporting means. Persian media abroad is based on supporting and highlighting issues or problems which are not raised inside the country, or domestic media do not have the power to raise them, or because domestic interests do not necessitate raising them. Now consider the point that for the past three decades, the media outside the country have been continuously talking about human rights violations in Iran and they have published news, reports or analysis on it. However, serious human rights movement in Iran started when domestic civil forces inside the country started their activity to tackle them. For example, in the past two years debates about issues such as constant references to the massacre of prisoners in the 80’s have been unprecedented. Even Amnesty International has not made a significant movement in this regard until after 20 years, and, for example, has had no role in annual commemorations of the victims of these massacres. However, in the past two years debates about the issue have been so widespread that we can say it has become part of the collective conscience of Iranians. What has changed? I think social sensitivities have changed, as we have a huge number of individuals active in small personal media. People have found each other in the network of newly established social media, weblogs and audience-oriented media and they have shared their memories, questions and common grievances with others.
Three decades of foreign media reporting and talking all about these issues, was never as influential as when people have been re-reading the post-revolution history. Just like the case of recent years when people constantly asking the question of why Khorramshahr was liberated but never properly rebuilt. And there are dozens of other new questions and debates small parts of which had been reflected in mainstream media.
In other words, it is not just the issue of trust. People should have reached a level of recognition of their own identity and an understanding of their social and political issues for these debates to enter thousands of other circles of debate. I think it is only people-based and audience-oriented media that can sense the sensitivities in their right time and react to them and push them to media debate circles and in their own turn impact these debates. This constant contact with people is what happened in the Aljazeera and Al-arabiyya and changed them into two powerful media network. Therefore, we can say that the media which lose their contact with the people in one way or another lose their impact too. This is what you describe as “trust”. If they are in touch with the grassroots and maintain this connection in different ways and continue it, they will be influential and win the trust of people.
Our current condition is that we neither trust the domestic media nor the foreign Persian-speaking televisions outside Iran. What we want and has strategic importance is connecting the people with the media. Their being domestic or foreign is a secondary issue, but it is natural that it would be preferable if a domestic media can make this connection. However, the problem is that our domestic media, inside and outside the country, are still running according to orders and they do not get their agenda from the people. Examples of the sport programme called 90 in Iran and satirical Parazit abroad tell us that when you take your agenda from the people, the result will be remarkably different. The fact that we have reached this connection in satire and in sport is quite meaningful. These two areas are where people have been most engaged with the media. Our main issue is then finding this link and connection in other areas of daily life. This is a modern media principle.
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