Crossposted from the CGCS Iran Media Project
Iran’s State Media: Indifference in the Eye of the Storm
By Yassmin Manauchehri
On August 11, 2012, two earthquakes (measuring 6.4 and 6.3 in magnitude) shook Iran’s East Azerbaijan province within ten minutes of each other. Rural areas northeast of the provincial capital Tabriz (mainly Ahar, Heris, and, Varzaqan) were those hit hardest by the earthquakes, claiming an estimated 306 fatalities and upwards of 3000 injuries. A third aftershock caused even more damage on August 14th.
Amid the excitement of the 2012 Olympics, the gaze of Iranian citizens immediately shifted from cheering on athletes to the shock of a devastating natural disaster. Iran’s state television, however, remained not just calm, but indifferent in the eye of the storm. While IRIB continued coverage of the Olympics and Syria, the press (mostly reformist and centrist news sites) began to cover the natural disaster immediately. The IRIB’s nonchalance was tone-deaf to the point that even right-wing Javan Online posted the headline “Television Gives Itself A Final Blow.” With known affiliation to the pro-government Sepah (Revolutionary Guards), and by extension, Iran’s state sponsored television), Javon Online wrote that the “final blow” was state television simply trying to get closer to citizens by continuing its coverage of the Olympics, but alienating and angering viewers in the process by failing to report on the natural disaster.
Even the ultra-conservative Tabnak lamented the fact that many were left in the dark about the disaster, especially given the fact that “the most far-reaching of the country’s media outlets, one which even gives itself the label of national” failed to report the news.
Baztab Emrooz (Today’s Reflection) writes, “It seems as if for some of the officials in the seda va sima [IRIB], the lives of thousands of Iranian citizens [are] not as important as the calm in the streets of Damascus and addressing the needs of the poor and disadvantaged people of America and Europe…; the earthquake victims spent twelve critical hours with minimal attention from national media or other [government] officials .” The article refers to the initial twelve-hour window following an earthquake as a time frame in which providing immediate help to victims is vital to save the most lives and prevent permanent physical damage. Baztab Emrooz points out that when a devastating earthquake hit Iran’s historic city of Bam in 2003 during Khatami’s presidency, IRIB played a crucial role in addressing and mobilizing public support to help victims of the earthquake.
According to the independent and pro-reform Asr-e Iran (Iran’s Age), in a “strange move,” IRIB decided to air its regularly scheduled comedy show “Laughter Bazaar,” just as citizens across the country were coming together to think of ways to help the earthquake victims. By the time “Laughter Bazaar” aired, Iranians were already standing in long lines to donate blood. Asr-e Iran asked readers “When those who have lost loved ones in the earthquake see that their country’s television airing song and dance and the show “Laughter Bazaar” instead of airing the pleas of help for the victims, what do they feel?!”
After-the-Fact Reactions In Social Media Spheres
Iranians stormed social media sites showing their anger towards Iran’s state television with various pictures, caricatures, and “status updates.” A widely shared image on Facebook shows two rows of pictures: one of clerics speaking at podiums and another row reporting news of the earthquake. The row of clerics is labeled “national channels” and the other “foreign channels” with a line in the middle rhetorically asking, “The night of Eastern Azerbaijan’s earthquake, a minimum of 180 people were killed and 1500 injured?”
While it remains officially unconfirmed, many social media users began reporting that the IRIB website had been hacked, sharing the following screenshot as proof. Reports of the hacking claim an individual named Amir posted a picture of the earthquake victims on the IRIB homepage emblazoned with the text “Cyber Jihad against the IRIB.”
Social media users also began to circulate ways of directly helping the earthquake victims, providing addresses of the locations to donate blood, legitimate organizations entrusted with monetary donations, and news of whether those in the United States were permitted to donate money given the widespread sanctions.
Why was Iran’s national media so slow to act in the face of disaster?
Many Iranians found the decision by IRIB to initially underreport (and in the opinion of many others even entirely ignore) the natural disaster that took place in Eastern Azerbaijan as a callous move. Even pro-government conservative news outlets began vocalizing their surprise the IRIB’s lack of earthquake coverage.
According to Mehdi Mohsenian-Rad, a well-known and credible university professor in the field of Communications and Sociology, IRIB’s poor performance could be the result of the following two reasons: 1. lack of knowledge of crisis communication in cases of natural disasters, or 2. the national media being used as a propaganda tool.
While Mohsenian-Rad believes that Iran’s national media has to improve its knowledge and experience in the field of crisis communication and that IRIB is strongly committed to downplaying such events in order to show that “all is well.” In fulfilling this mission, the IRIB is apparently not afraid of losing any more of its credibility and is prepared to alter reality by any means necessary in order to distract people’s attention from the unpleasant realities of the news.