Iran State media demonizing free press: this is how they do it

Oppressive regimes in the Middle-East often use State Media to vilify and demonize independent sources of news. For a non-Arabic or non-Persian speaking public, it may be difficult to understand just how vicious these attacks can become.

In the case of Iran, broadcasters like my own Radio Zamaneh are the frequent subject of violent criticism by state-controlled media.  Of late, the Persian service of the BBC is being targeted, possibly for airing a documentary on Supreme Leader Khamenei a while ago.

I thought it would be interesting for a non-Persian speaking audience to provide an ad verbatim translation of one such attack against the BBC, which was aired on September 27th, 2011, on one of the major TV news channels. I won’t comment on it too much; just read it for yourself. Note that the Baha’i, mentioned in the news broadcast, is a faith forbidden in Iran, whose adherents are severely persecuted by the authorities.

Iranian TV comments on detention of people accused of cooperating with BBC

[News presenter] The detention in Tehran of a number of people connected to the government-linked television in England, the BBC, appears to be one of those cases that, the more the opposite side denies something, the more confident everyone becomes that there was in fact something going on.

Since the detention last week of a number of people linked to the BBC, the
official television in England has become pretty agitated, and some people
inside the country have also become very active revealing their hidden
agenda.

Only a few days ago, the intelligence minister [Heydar Moslehi] revealed the true nature of the BBC network which is working as a media cover for
England’s intelligence organization, carrying out intelligence activities
inside Iran.

[Actuality of a female BBC Persian newsreader] The BBC Persian says that it is an independent network and does not have any colleagues working for it inside Iran.

[Actuality of a male BBC Persian newsreader] The BBC Persian does not have anyone cooperating with it inside Iran, and basically it [BBC Persian] does not cooperate with anyone in that country.

[Actuality of an interview with a male BBC employee] Basically, we do not
have anyone cooperating with us inside Iran.

[News presenter] Those three people repeated that phrase in a single night
and in a single BBC newscast. The BBC repeated the same phrase several times on previous days. Why the official network of England is insisting so much that it does not have anyone cooperating with it inside Iran? It seems that the BBC’s repeated denials are somewhat amateurish and hasty, and instead of helping to prove its claim, it is helping its audience to come to the conclusion that the real story is something else. But, what is the real
story?

A few days ago, the intelligence minister said that the BBC network was
indeed a media cover for intelligence activities and the network is in fact
a Baha’i network.

[Actuality of a BBC Persian programme in which the presenter says] Today we have come to the port city of Haifa, in the north of Israel. Let us visit
this place, the international centre for the Baha’is in order to know the
Baha’is better and to see what they do here in Israel. A few streets away, I
went to visit Albert Lincoln, the secretary-general of the Baha’i community.

[News presenter] What is noteworthy here is the serious efforts of certain
people and currents who support the people who were linked to this Baha’i
network which pretends to be a media source but it is in fact an
intelligence network. House of Cinema which itself believes to be a trade,
issued a statement immediately after the detention of the people who were
linked with the BBC and said that the detentions were the result of a big
misunderstanding. This pretend trade even issued a second statement
supporting those who were detained and expressed regret about their
detention. In order to justify those people’s cooperation with the Baha’i
BBC network, the House of Cinema claimed that they cooperated [with the BBC] in order to earn a living. The interesting thing here is that the head of
the BBC Persian, despite previous denials that those people were linked with the BBC, has expressed his regret [about their detention].

[Actuality of the head of the BBC Persian] I really regret the detention of
those who are accused of cooperating with the BBC.

[News presenter] It seems that the circle of people linked with the Baha’i
BBC network, who are carrying out intelligence activities under the guise of media activity, has extensive and complicated dimensions. The majority of those people have been identified and we should wait to be informed about the dimensions of the case in future days.

[Video shows a BBC logo, as well as a logo saying “Baha’i Broadcasting
Corporation”]

Source: Vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran Network 2, Tehran, in Persian, 1700 gmt 27 Sep 11  – translation provided by BBC Monitoring

Democracy: 10 simple rules for successful transition from authoritarian to democratic rule

As we are deposing dictators (or aspiring to do so) all across the Middle-East, the Caucasus and Central Asia, the day after the party can make one feel a bit hung-over, and even despairing when looking at the daunting task ahead. Don’t worry, it has been done many times before you. In Africa, in Latin-America, and in Europe. Lessons have been learned. And trust me: transforming societies doesn’t have to be rocket science.

The benefits of democracy and the rule of law are not as universally accepted and self-explanatory anymore as twenty to thirty years ago. But the bad reputation these concepts have gained in recent years often stem from them having been implemented incompletely. In addition to that, the idea that a democracy governed by the rule of law is somehow at odds with, say, religion or culture, is utterly false. In the long run, truly democratic countries with a fair legal and judicial system, open society and open economy stand a much better chance of becoming stable, secure, prosperous nations with something to gain for everyone, than any other system.

Without any claim to infallibility, my years in international democracy, governance and media development have taught me these 10 simple rules for successful transition from authoritarian to democratic rule.

1. Take your time. Have all major political forces sign off on a technical government of non-political, authoritative experts that run the country for 3-4 years without parliamentary or other interference.

2. Clean up all legislation to ensure open, transparent, fair, non-discriminatory, inclusive, governmental, economic, social and legal processes. Incorporate human rights treaties and agreements.

3. Reform the bureaucracy, military, police and judiciary. Clear out obviously criminal and/or corrupt and inefficient officials from the very top on downwards. But leave everyone else in place, regardless of affiliation. They know how to run things.

4. Reform and retrain the judiciary and correctional system to restore trust in court independence.

5. Introduce unbiased and true education in all schools and in public campaigns about the country’s history, past faults and achievements, and integrate universal human rights and concepts of equality, non-violence and non-discrimination.

6. Reform the economy. Eradicate monopolies and oligarchies. Undo the close ties between government branches, officials and business enterprises, economic sectors. Create level playing field, access to economic activities for previously disenfranchised, non-connected individuals and groups.

7. Facilitate independent, pluralist media. Boost professional journalism colleges and trainings. Always remain responsive and accountable to journalists, even if they ask uneasy questions.

8. Facilitate a wide variety of civil society organizations. But fund only consortia of diverse, state-independent, non-ideological NGO’s.

9. Design an electoral system that ensures access to and participation in decision-making for all social groups, classes. Make sure that minorities, also those formerly in power, win something and feel they remain part of the process. Enforce a clean, free and fair voting process and result, pre- and post-election, even in the smallest and remotest of areas.

10. Invest in political party building. Facilitate effective campaigns that connect all parties and their ideas to the public. Train high quality future politicians that understand democracy is about trust, compromise, open communication and transparent decisions, sharing benefits between majorities and minorities, and long term gains for your constituency rather than short term ones.

Now, and only now: vote.

Democracy or Human Rights: an unexpected and uneasy choice

Thinking of recent events in Tunis and Cairo, I can’t help thinking of one of my journalism students in Baghdad: Thiba. She, like others I know in Beirut, Istanbul, Casablanca, and Amman, is a modern, secular young woman. Thiba is a Muslim who considers her faith, and how she chooses to exercise it, a matter of personal choice. But she lives in the capital of Iraq. A place that, in many respects, has turned into a theocracy in a way that would make the mollahs in Tehran reminisce of the good old days. There are little personal choices left for Thiba. She does not belong to the rich, happy few that has the means to escape: so for her, conformity, peer pressure, and social conservatism masquerading as true religion dictate public life now. This was quite different under Saddam.

In the West, we often have a somewhat monolithic view of the Near East. We tend to think of it as one large traditional, pious society where everyone is content to follow the rule of Islam – or rather the reactionary, male-centered version that governmental and religious authorities choose to enforce. We tend to overlook the very real cultural war that is going on all through the region, between religious and cultural traditionalists on one hand, and liberal, secular, free-thinking individuals on the other. In some places this cultural war is palpable. In others, it is a silent war that seems all but lost to the modernists.

When it comes to the issue of democracy versus human rights, liberals and minorities in the Near East – whether Muslim or Christian, men or women – often face a hard choice. Under authoritarian rule, their social rights and privileges are to some degree respected. Although many dictators in the Near East came to adopt religious fervor as an integral part of their governing ideology in recent decades – along with nationalism and anti-Zionism – the secular Muslim elite and ethnic minorities feel protected from Islamist zealots, and Christians feel shielded from persecution by the other People of the Book. If you would ask a modern, progressive inhabitant of Cairo – someone that might have a world outlook surprisingly similar to yours in London or Amsterdam – whether he prefers democracy over Mubarak, you might be in for a very uneasy answer. It isn’t that he particularly likes Mubarak. But it’s still better than the potential alternative.

Many secularists in the Middle East have made a bargain: they have essentially given up on their political rights – including their right to vote in free and fair elections, a transparent government and an independent judiciary – in order to safeguard their social rights. On a rational level, they do see that true democracy would bring them both political and social freedom; but they find it hard to see that this stage of true democracy would ever be reached, once a newly installed fledgling democracy has opened the floodgates to the Islamists. This is the dilemma that many in Tunesia  – and other countries across the globe  – now face, and it partly explains the current stand-off in Tunis between those that want a smooth transition and those that fight for radical, swift, democratic change.

When it comes to our foreign policies, we in the West often make the wrong choices. We either support a nasty dictator, or we support those that claim to bring true democracy to their country, but often strand – willingly, or unwillingly – in some imperfect version of it that only brings more corruption and new forms of oppression. We should start to support the lone individuals that truly share with us modern values about freedom, equality, human rights.