x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Secret Iranian state TV report admits its election coverage worsened unrest

'Ham-fisted reporting' caused 'unbearable pain and lethal hatred', which was 'undesirable for the country, the revolution and the regime', says confidential internal report acquired by Iranian human rights group.

When hundreds of thousands of Iranians protested peacefully against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election two years ago, many also voiced anger at the state-run broadcaster.

Iranian television gave little coverage to the demonstrations. When it did, it showed only brief scenes of what presenters described as "hooligans" rioting. A cartoon circulating on Facebook fumed: "Lying media. Our shame. National TV!"

Iranians critical of their government have long viewed state media as a key propaganda tool used to thwart reform.

In the summer of 2009, many people also complained they were being humiliated by their national broadcaster, which aired Hollywood blockbusters at the time of planned demonstrations in an attempt to keep people off the streets.

It now appears those views were shared by some in the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), a pillar of the regime that has used its obedient media to denigrate its opponents as enemies or western-backed agents.

A respected Iranian human rights group claims to have acquired a confidential internal report conducted by a subsection of the IRIB apparently intended for its senior managers.

The document argues that miscalculations by the state broadcaster on election day and its tumultuous aftermath "damaged people's trust" in the network and were partly responsible for the post-election unrest.

IRIB's ham-fisted reporting caused "unbearable pain and lethal hatred", which was "undesirable for the country, the revolution and the regime", the report's authors said.

They added: "If the opposition candidates had an opportunity to speak their demands in state media as the 'most trusted forum', their anger would have subsided and the volume of street protests and subsequent riots would have diminished."

The leaked report, titled "Analysis of the IRIB's Conduct and Audience Trust Before and After the Presidential Election", was disseminated by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. The ICHRI, a US-based organisation that is well connected inside Iran, posted images on its website of a few pages of the lengthy Farsi-language document.

The report was compiled by the IRIB's education and research department of the Political Bureau, but the ICHRI provided only the surnames its two authors, Daneshmandi and Koharnrooz. Internet search engines returned a blank on both names.

"I'm not at liberty to say how the report was obtained but I can vouch for its authenticity," Aaron Rhodes, a ICHRI policy adviser in Hamburg, Germany, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Scott Lucas, a professor of American studies at Birmingham University in England who edits EA WorldView, a website with respected Iran coverage, said: "From what our Farsi-speaking staff has seen, the report seems to be authentic."

If so, it was compiled by senior IRIB managers who were seemingly confident enough to describe the regime's critics as "the opposition" or "protesters", never once branding them, as required in the official rubric, as "seditionists".

An analyst from Tehran said: "There's been no response from the IRIB yet, but I expect them to soon deny the existence of any such a document."

The report was dated August 9 2009, just two months after Mr Ahmadinejad's election victory, which his opponents insist was fraudulently achieved by massive ballot-rigging. That summer's protests were the worst crisis to hit the regime since the early days of Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979.

The report's authors argue that the IRIB did not allow enough time to manipulate the public opinion before it "prematurely" announced the election results on the night of June 12, 2009. Mr Ahmadinejad was declared the winner with 61 per cent of the vote fewer than five hours after the ballot was closed.

Such speed was "almost unprecedented", the report said. This led to "doubts among people" and "chatter" about "predetermined election results".

In the ensuing days, street interviews by state television and radio highlighted those who supported Mr Ahmadinejad, while ignoring the complaints of his ostensibly defeated reformist rivals, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi.

This was not in the "state's best interest", the report said, because people shunned national media while tuning into "foreign satellite networks".

Private television and radio stations are banned in Iran, but many people tune in to the Persian-language channels of the BBC and Voice of America. The two western agencies are feared, reviled and outlawed by Tehran's hardline regime.

The internal IRIB report also chides Iran's state television for taking a week to report on the killing of Neda Agha Soltan, an Iranian woman protester shot dead on a Tehran street in June 2009. Her harrowing final moments were relayed within minutes by social media, making her a martyr of the brave but doomed Iranian uprising.

When Iran's state media eventually covered the story, they infuriated many by claiming that she was the victim of a western plot to discredit Iran's volunteer Basij militia, which spearheaded the post-election crackdown.

The IRIB also discredited itself in the eyes of millions of Iranians by broadcasting mass show trials of reformist figures after Mr Ahmadinejad's re-election. Most independent observers believe their alleged confessions were made under duress. More recently, IRIB's coverage of the Arab Spring has been woefully one-sided, analysts said.

Iran's state TV hailed the rebellions as an "Islamic awakening" against western-backed governments, but it ignored the four-month-old uprising in Syria where Tehran backs the ruling regime.

Some analysts said those questioning the veracity of the internal IRIB report should look back at comments made within days of the election by Ali Larijani, a former head of the state broadcaster who is now the influential speaker of Iran's parliament. A bitter, hardline opponent of Mr Ahmadinejad, he proclaimed that the IRIB "should not act in a way that provokes people".

Under Iran's constitution, the head of IRIB is appointed by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is currently locked in a power struggle with Mr Ahmadinejad, his ambitious and unruly president. Their prolonged tussle, however, has not tempered the IRIB's hardline coverage of events at home or abroad.

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae

msinaiee@thenational.ae