Iran banned journalists with foreign media outlets from reporting from the streets yesterday, as protests following the country's disputed presidential elections entered their third day. The culture ministry said journalists could continue to work from their offices but that it was cancelling press accreditation for all foreign media, Reuters reported.
"I wouldn't speculate about why they've done this," said John Pullman, the head of output at Al Jazeera English. "They say it is because they cannot guarantee the security of people on the streets." The ban followed the week-long shutdown of Al Arabiya's news reporting operation in the country that began on Sunday. Dr Nabil al Khatib, the executive editor of Al Arabiya, said the news organisation was given no explanation for the ban, leaving it to assume it was related to its election coverage.
"We passed the first pictures of the demonstration," he said. "I won't say they are exclusive, but lots of media organisations were cautious in showing these pictures, worried that the Iranian authorities would be unhappy. "We passed those pictures and we passed intensive reactions to the results of the elections, so the authorities in Iran wanted to make things more difficult." Since Sunday, Al Arabiya has been reporting on the situation in Iran from its Dubai headquarters.
"Now we rely on calling eyewitnesses from the newsroom, and try to compare different versions to get the real picture." Some commentators have pointed to the Iranian authorities' different treatment of the two titans of Arabic-language television news as evidence of the editorial differences between the outlets. "I think that Al Jazeera clearly took the side of the Iranian government and the Iranian establishment, but the question is whether they did that because they were afraid of being kicked out, or because the Qatari government [which owns Al Jazeera] is allied with the Iranian government," said Salameh Nematt, the international editor for The Daily Beast.
"Al Arabiya did much better, and that's probably why the Iranian government kicked them out." But other viewers were surprised by al Jazeera's even-handedness. "My impression was that they are hitting both sides," said Tuqan Tuqan, a Palestinian IT and television consultant who was keeping an eye on al Jazeera's Arabic coverage over the weekend from his home in Stockholm. "They are for anti-Western movements in the Middle East, but at the same time, they also reported a lot on the unrest. So I would call them balanced."
Donatella Della Ratta, who runs the Mediaoriente blog and has written a book about Al Jazeera, believes the channel may be in the midst of an identity crisis, as evidenced by its less-than-zealous coverage of the Lebanese elections. "For the past few years, Al Jazeera has been very much focused on Bush," she said. "They were building their programme and their editorial line around the idea that this is the Arab world, and this is Bush. I think that's not possible anymore.
"That's why they looked confused. That's my impression, that they have never been so confused before." firstname.lastname@example.org * Additional reporting by Reuters