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Reporting restrictions in Iran

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 13:15 UK time, Thursday, 18 June 2009

Sometimes, it's the absurd that tells the real story. A cartoon by Peter Brookes in The Times today pictures Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei standing on a chair, afraid of a mouse - not a rodent, but the computer kind! It brought to mind Peter Ustinov's bon mot, "comedy is simply a funny way of being serious".

Earlier this week, the BBC and other international news organisations were banned from attending what Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance called "unauthorised gatherings".

Iranians taking part in a rally supporting Iranian opposition leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, in Tehran

Essentially, it means that we're supposed to only operate from our bureau and not to report from the streets. It was a disappointing development and one that means that we're now operating under formal "reporting restrictions".

While John Simpson and Jon Leyne are prevented from travelling to opposition rallies, and must seek permission to attend something like Friday prayers, there are no "minders" sitting on their shoulder with a red pen, deciding what they can and cannot say.

Such restrictions only have limited impact. Two thirds of Iranians are under 30, "tweeting" and "blogging" are second nature to them. While we've used Twitter for information on previous stories, such as the Hudson plane crash, it's the protest in Iran that has seen it become mainstream, providing real-time commentary on events in Tehran and elsewhere - events which we're banned from attending, but which we can follow "online".

Farsi is now the second most popular language on the web - members of the new generation in Iran are "wired" in a way their parents, who lived through the Iranian Revolution 30 years ago, could never have imagined. So while the authorities in Tehran are trying to limit just how much we can see and hear, technology opens a window on what's going on.

My colleague Steve Herrmann has written previously of the importance of verifying what we get from social media and of content supplied direct to the BBC by viewers, listeners and readers. At one stage earlier this week, BBC Persian was getting five pieces of video every minute; the challenge of authenticating what we receive is immense, but the value is even greater.

It's why the Ayatollah is probably right to be afraid of that mouse!

Jon Williams is the BBC World News Editor.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    The younger generations are gaining power and are not as patient about internal and external policies of governments. It is not just information but also ideas that are being discussed on global forums. The ruling gerneration has little to show for their era. Wars, poverty, financial robbery of individual accounts and international relations that support oppressive regimes. The current generation travels on a global scale, have a common internet, text, twitter, social networking language providing bonds that no previous generation expereinced. Because of their affluence, they have time, because of education, they have ideas and because of the internet they have access to information on a global scale. They have witnessed the impacts of industrial pollution and climate change. They see governments and corporations as a cullusion of interests that deserve little respect. Governmental and corporate bureauracies are viewed as mindless pits with interests contray to the the public good. They think dfferently, and that may be a good thing. The student in Iran texting to the Iranian student in the UK, talking to the Iranian graduate in the US are their own media filters. The current diplomatic policies of economics first and people second are seen by this generation as the basis for confrontational politics. They have grown up in a world of insecurity and have bonded with each other. The only thing they have been offered is the consumption of "things." The curtain has been pulled away and the Wizard is just a man.

  • Comment number 2.

    So BBC reporters are now limited to staying in their bureau and collecting information via the web, and through the window no doubt.

    But conversely, the Iranian public are becoming more vocal via the web, forums, blogs, texting etc., which is probably helping to feed what the reporters are able to collect.

    Whilst this can be seen as a highly progressive change - the people speaking out from 'under' the official channels of media and news reporting, there is a danger that needs to be considered too.

    Independent reporting of the facts has been entrusted to reliable news sources, in the free world at least, for all time (all my time). Whether it is the written accounts of newspaper journalists, or the broadcast opinion of their TV cousins, we choose the BBC, CNN, ITN, Fox and the like to bring us the truth.

    Blogs are a great way for the News Agencies or other propagators of the facts to gather information from their viewing / reading public. It is an extension of the old 'dear Editor' column in many newspapers, and maybe, you could say, and extension of POV on BBC TV, but apart from the sometimes over-sensitive moderators, what is there between the blog writers, response poster, and the reading public, designed to weed out truth from propoganda.

    The greatest threat to this kind of news gathering could be the very thing that makes it attractive in the first place. The fact that anyone can put up their opinion is brilliant. We can all voice our opinion. We can all have a say on the story. The reporters can get almost instantaneous feedback on their piece and opinions can be swayed overnight. That last one is very important.

    Opinions can be swayed. What with Twitters Tweeting, and Bloggers Blogging, there's nothing to stop the Propoganda-ers propoganda'ing. Is there?

  • Comment number 3.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 4.

    "The fact that anyone can put up their opinion is brilliant. We can all voice our opinion. We can all have a say on the story. The reporters can get almost instantaneous feedback on their piece and opinions can be swayed overnight."

    Unless of course your opinion is censored which is all to often the case at the BBC, both on these blogs and "Have Your Say". It would be better if you could just click on a "comments" button underneath a story and have your say directly where it will be seen. CNN has this on many of it's stories. I can only hope the BBC follows suit at some stage.

    It's sad to see these sorts of press restrictions in Iran though. I should imagine the Iranian government is particularly paranoid about the BBC since it was the BBC which broadcast the "go code" for the coup in 1953 which wrecked the democracy and installed a US/UK friendly dictator.

    "Independent reporting of the facts has been entrusted to reliable news sources"

    Very few sources in fact. Typically just Reuters and Associated Press. Most of the British press just re-type stories from those two feeds (sometime barely re-typing). If Reuters and AP don't talk about something, then it often doesn't get discussed. For example, if neither of them write reports about western efforts to destabilize Iran, then you won't see it unless you really go hunting.

    The so-called reliability of these professional sources is really overblown anyway. For example the BBC routinely uses the "wiped of the wap" quote by Ahmadinejad even though he never said it. In fact no such idiom exists in Farsi.

  • Comment number 5.

    4. At 7:18pm on 18 Jun 2009, StevenJMUK wrote:
    "...Unless of course your opinion is censored..."

    ...which of course is the subject of another blog going on - Stop the Blocking - which means that this post will be removed!

    "...Very few sources in fact. Typically just Reuters and Associated Press..."

    Very true in many cases, but the BBC have a large amount of correspondents and journalists out in the field too - that is where much of the respect for the BBC comes from - and the fact that those reporters, in general, will give a good account from a British perspective (at least the UK editions of the news).

    Mainly though, I agree with much you said. I've been to Iran, Tehran, and can only say that the people of Iran amazed me. I don't know so much about their politics, apart from what mainstream media tells us. My point in my earlier post there was that while it is progressive to have all possible technologies used by the people on the ground in Iran, such as SMS, email, internet to blog, twitter and facebook, it could be used to subvert just as much as blocking TV signals or SMS networks.

    Negative, I know, but a safe balance would be needed.

  • Comment number 6.

    In my view the restrictions are simply the Iranian authorities way of telling people just who is in control. Restricting the collection and exposure of information in conjunction with basic censorship are easy ways of frustrating and irking people as well as indicating who has control (as the BBC already knows).

    The main thrust of the protest has still to prove how successful it has been in changing the outcome of the Iranian election; that outcome is not going to be affected by the restrictions on the media now in place.

  • Comment number 7.


    SHLA2UK
    "Very true in many cases, but the BBC have a large amount of correspondents and journalists out in the field too - that is where much of the respect for the BBC comes from"

    They have correspondents yes, but do they explore all the angles or just go with the flow? From what I have seen they usually severely restrict the possible scenarios. For example, for several years now journalists like Seymour Hersh have been writing about covert US operations aimed at destabilizing the Iranian government. How many BBC reports have talked about possible US involvement in fanning the flames of dissent?

    Perhaps the BBC would say that there is no hard evidence of US interference, so they can't report on it. However, there is no hard evidence of election fraud either, just allegations, but the BBC has no problem writing dozens of articles about it. In fact a number of polls held before the election showed Ahmadinejad was going to win by a wide margin.

    Hopefully you will be able to read this SHLA2UK, before they censor it. Perhaps like the Iranians, we need to resort to other avenues like Twitter to actually speak our mind.

  • Comment number 8.

    "It's why the Ayatollah is probably right to be afraid of that mouse!"

    If you're referring to John Simpson, he's the one who should be afraid. If he opens up his mouth and insults the Iranian Surpreme Leader the way he insulted President Bush at the White House a few years ago, he may be staying as a guest of the Iranian government for a long time just the way Roxana Saberi almost did. Even the Royal Navy won't be able to help him.

    Justin Webb's blog site which is discussion Iran now is down again. Is that one of BBC's usual software glitches or did the Iraniac government finally hack BBC's web site successfully? I'll place my money on the software. BBC's own IT department is a far greater threat to the reliability of its computer network than anyone from the outside.

  • Comment number 9.

    With BBC journalists "trapped" in their offices it is a great chance for them to get down to serious hard work again - like investigating and developing stories. I am afraid that "instant news making" is the stuff of tabloids who rely on sensation to sell.

    Iran has many facets not just the ones lovingly presented by those who just don't like the smell of the leadership. With some positive journalism for a change who knows - maybe we can all find some understanding of why many Iranians do not like or trust western media. The BBC Persian branch should understand that better than anyone else.

  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 11.

    10. At 08:48am on 19 Jun 2009, MrRvLouis wrote:
    "Why haven't there been any announcements by the BBC on its web pages about the removal of Realplayer and Windows Media Player options for outside-of-the-UK persons to view BBC video/TV programmes??"

    Mr Louis, what a well written post.
    You might like to take a look at the thread going on at the following BBC Blog too.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors/2009/06/change_to_international_pages.html

    This is a blog referring to changes made to the BBC websites which have affected video and other output from the news sites and uses geolocation detection to decide if you are international or UK - and divides the output accordingly - all done without notice or announcement. There are two blogs and almost a 1000 respondents, almost all negative.

  • Comment number 12.

    Restrictions of Reporting of happened events by Iranian authorities are not worthy.
    Any restriction on press,media,public opinions,readers views and coverages of real scenes are not acceptable.
    Press freedom should be restored to BBC correspondents,Reporters and networks websites latest informations.

  • Comment number 13.

  • Comment number 14.

    Why are we so interested in whats happening in Iran. There is enough to contend with in this country. This country is now being critised by the Iranians for interfering, when in fact it is only the excessive coverage by the media that gives this impression. When will this country realise that the happenings in those countries are of no interest to the majority of thinking people here. Surely we must accept that the tribal conditions in which the peoples of that region live can in no way be compared to ours. Why not leave well alone, stay out of the region, and let them deal with matters in the way they have always done so.

 

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