Media analysis: What Iranian protests?

Coverage of popular unrest divides Middle East media.

PROTESTERS ARE SHOWN near the University of Tehran on Saturday in a photo obtained from social media. (photo credit: REUTERS)
PROTESTERS ARE SHOWN near the University of Tehran on Saturday in a photo obtained from social media.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
By the fourth day of the protests in Iran, even as Iranian state media reported 10 deaths, Qatar-based Al Jazeera had stopped highlighting the momentous events on its homepage. In contrast, Saudi Arabia-based Al-Arabiya’s top three stories were on the demonstrations. “Death toll rises to 12 as hundreds arrested,” one headline read.
The chasm in coverage has broken along partisan lines in the Middle East. Media that are sympathetic to the pro-Iran camp, such as channels close to Hezbollah or the Syrian regime, have downplayed the protests or transmitted the regime’s message. Those closer to Riyadh or the opposition to Assad have sought to show off the clashes.
Iran protests grow, death toll mounts, January 2, 2018. (REUTERS)
The headline on Monday at Press TV in Iran, which parrots Tehran’s line, announced, “Iranians free to criticize, stage protest: Rouhani.” According to the piece, “The Iranian president says people are completely free to express their criticism or stage protests according to the constitution.” The rest of the site highlighted the “greater resistance” of Hamas, Israel’s “apartheid system” and unhappy Saudi drivers. On December 31, Press TV also featured, “Israelis protest against Netanyahu regime’s corruption.” Fars News Agency – which is connected to the Iranian government and focuses on comments by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – asserted: “The US, the Zionist regime and the reactionary regimes in the region have always sought destruction of Islamic Iran’s stability and security.” Those comments highlight the “good cop, bad cop” approach of the regime. On the one hand it claims to accept protests, while on the other it shuts down social media and sends in its supporters like the IRGC to suppress the demonstrators.
Other media in the Middle East have taken a more nuanced view or have ignored the protests. The Jordan Times buried protest coverage on its homepage on the first day of the New Year. Al-Masry al-Youm in Egypt didn’t contain a major story on the protests. SANA, the official news agency of Syria, didn’t cover the protests. The Daily Star in Lebanon was more interested in the trial of Ahed Tamimi in Israel and New Year’s celebrations, but also published a balanced analysis titled, “What brought Iranian protesters to streets?” Al-Mayadeen TV, which is supportive of the Syrian government, included an interview with Mohsen Rezai, secretary of Iran’s Expediency Council that claimed the US was “intervening” in Iran’s affairs by supporting the protests.
“IT IS NORMAL that the day will come when the Iranian regime faces the wrath of the majority, which supported its arrival in power 40 years ago,” wrote Abdulrahman al-Rashed at the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper. The National in the UAE, which is generally critical of Qatar and Iran, didn’t have one Iran story on its January 1 online edition. “Seven years of watching protests eventually immunizes one against hope, but wow!” tweeted columnist and author Hassan Hassan on December 30. Kuwait’s Al-Jarida daily highlighted the protests, reporting the deaths of two demonstrators on Sunday and quoting Hidayatullah Khademi, an Iranian politician.
In Turkey, where the government has grown closer to Iran in the last year, media have shown a tepid response: Hurriyet barely covered the protests, preferring instead to quote Iranian state TV about the death of protesters; Daily Sabah also relegated Iran coverage to the bottom of its homepage, quoting Rouhani’s claim that Iran would provide space for criticism; while news agency Anadolu featured several major pieces highlighting Iranian journalist Abbas Abdi and his claims that the protests were fueled by political factions opposed to Rouhani. “It is natural enough that the countries that do not have good relations with Iran are enjoying this situation. In the same way, Iran also enjoys if similar events happened in those countries,” he said. Four other articles looked at the size of the protests, the arrests and the government’s comments.
In the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, media have balanced its coverage of neighboring Iran with local coverage. Rudaw Media Network mentioned a Kurdish protester in Kermanshah who said, “When we don’t have bread to eat we are not afraid of anything.” NRT, another Kurdish outlet, said demonstrators were calling for a general strike on January 2. “Popular protests against poverty and the regime’s oppressive policies continue in Iran and Rohilat [eastern Kurdistan region in Iran] for the fifth day.”
Coverage throughout the region has tended to lack Iranian sources, which is surprising since some media there have greater access to Iran than that of Western media. Many reports have relied only on state media in Iran or even on wire stories from the West. This may be because the media fear alienating the Iranian regime. It may also be due to the fact that some media outlets don’t want to step on toes in their home countries. Too much highlighting of the “Iranian right to protest” might lead locals to wonder about their own right to protest. Since the Arab spring protests in 2011 led to the toppling of regimes and civil war in Syria, many governments in the Middle East are wary of letting the lid off any kind of social unrest. Nevertheless, those countries that have opposed Iran’s involvement in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq have been happy to see the regime forced to struggle – on its own turf, for once – rather than exporting Iranian influence.