July 3, 2008

Iran Paper Warns About Influence of Foreign Media

Text of commentary by Azar Mansuri headlined: "Foreign media, opportunity or threat" published by Iranian newspaper E'temad website on 30 June

As the fourth pillar of civil society, the media provides an important part of the requirements of a democratic system. If this pillar of civil society can play its role in a democratic and free climate, not only it can strengthen other pillars of the civil society, such as political parties, NGOs and professional guilds and organizations, it can furthermore play the biggest role in narrowing the gap between the government and the nation.

The free flow of information will, on the one hand, deepen people's awareness and information; and, on the other hand, by exposing domestic and foreign issues it will force the government to be accountable. However, it is absolutely certain that all these important gains will not be achieved unless the fourth pillar of democracy is able to work without censorship and free from threats, if its rights are recognized, and if it is able to pursue its activities in a dynamic way.

It has been reported that the Persian programme of the BBC television network will start its work in the near future. With the start of the activities of that network, another Persian language channel will be added to many networks that are already operating from abroad. According to the information available to the present writer, there has been a considerable increase in the number of similar radio and television channels during the past few years. At the moment, tens of Persian language networks with different leanings are broadcasting from abroad. Mainly two issues form the basis of the aims of those who make the programmes of those networks, and those programmes are more prominent in two areas:

1- Politics: A major part of the activities of those networks is devoted to news and domestic and foreign political developments relating to Iran. Some of those networks also try to act as the eloquent voice of many domestic critics, friends or foes of the Islamic Republic of Iran who are deprived of any media [of their own]. The influence of those networks is such that almost none of the domestic media has the capacity to cover all the views of that group of people who are addressed by that [foreign] media. In fact, providing an analysis of the domestic and foreign policies of our country and expressing some of the viewpoints of different groups are only done by such networks. Many of their audiences believe that in order to gain access to news and to learn of different developments, they must turn to those networks.

BBC Radio is one of those networks, which seems to have the largest audience from that point of view. It is probable that when the new [BBC] television channel starts to broadcast, its influence would be even greater than that of the BBC Radio. The German Voice [Deutsche Welle], the French Radio and ... [Ellipses as published] also belong to the same category, but none of them has the same level of influence as the BBC has.

2. Culture: A considerable number of those networks provide varied television programmes and, as a result, they have attracted a large audience. It seems that two main points have helped to increase the audiences of those programmes:

A- Those programmes are mainly broadcast on television channels that can be accessed through satellite dishes.

B- A large part of the productions of those channels is such that they do not have any domestic rivals or similar programmes at home. It is important to look at this issue from different aspects: Firstly, the policy that has resulted in the production and broadcasting of those programmes by those networks; and secondly, a considerable number of Iranian audiences that such programmes attract both in the country and abroad.

Without doubt, there will be no rational basis for supplying something for which there is no demand. According to the law of supply and demand, each product tries to satisfy some of the needs of the customers. If our domestic products had the capacity to satisfy the different media requirements of the people, most certainly the extent, the depth and the influence of such [foreign] media would be reduced to a minimum. On the other hand, if the domestic media lacks the capacity to satisfy those needs, those who demand those services will try to satisfy their needs from other sources.

The increase in the number of Persian language media broadcasting from abroad can be regarded as an opportunity for our country only if, on the one hand, our national media (including both the radio and television) is able to deal with the current affairs of the country without censorship, and if they can provide a platform for different viewpoints and can provide news and analysis in such a way that it would satisfy the needs of the society; and, on the other hand, alongside the national media, there are other permitted [presumably private] media and press that can publish and broadcast domestic and foreign reports without censorship.

In any case, it seems that not only the existence of foreign media will not be regarded as a threat, if they provide an opportunity to increase the level of public trust and public participation at home. The strengthening of these two factors [presumably free national and private media] will reduce the gap between the government and the nation to the least possible level.

May be one can prove the lack of balance between supply and demand in the country by looking at the number of Persian language networks that broadcast from abroad and their considerable increase during recent years. In order to clarify the issue further we can raise a fundamental question, namely has not the lack of response to the existing media requirements in the country resulted in the supply of such productions from abroad? Or is it the special position of Iran at the present juncture that has encouraged others to produce Persian language news and programmes to respond to the requirements of our people? In either case, the increase in the number of such foreign media confirms the fact that one should provide a greater capacity for domestic media, especially the national media, so that there is a proper balance between supply and demand. On the other hand, one should pave the ground for the setting up of the media by the critics [of the government] both inside and outside the country.

Otherwise, as the result of the ever-increasing demand by the customers and the limitations imposed on domestic media, and of course the expansion of technology and information, only others [from abroad] will be able to respond to the needs of the audiences inside the country. If that situation is strengthened, the limitations imposed on domestic media will also become more serious.

Originally published by E'temad website, Tehran, in Persian 30 Jun 08.

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