How can journalists responsibly report on countries to which they have very little access? How can they break beyond barriers to produce good reporting? And more importantly, to what extent can we, as readers, trust stories about such sensitive nations in the news media?
Last week, the International Center for Journalists provided an extraordinary chance for many foreign correspondents to try to answer these questions in a discussion on Iran.
They listened to a variety of Iranian scholars and journalists who spoke about ways to get their readers to understand Iran beyond Ayatollahs, veiled women, ambitious nuclear plans, the 1980 hostage crisis, and its controversial President.
In my experience with journalists who cover Iran, I have found that one of the major obstacles they face in producing accurate, fair, and comprehensive reports is procuring background information.
The information they rely on is mostly provided by Iranian exiles, think tanks (mainly in Washington), Iran scholars and, to an extent, Iranian sources who feel comfortable sharing their stories with foreign journalists -- people who sometimes risk their lives to share their knowledge, insights and analysis on the ground.
Unfortunately, this method of gaining context has become problematic due to politically polarized sources who tend to filter information through different lenses and provide a version of truth that in many cases has nothing to do with what is happening in Iran. To illustrate this, I will share a few examples:
There is no doubt that since Ahmadinejad coming into office, his insufficient economic policies have caused tough times for the Iranian people, who have suffered from high inflation, unemployment and political repression. Numbers support these facts. But I was amazed by the analysis of one of the participants, an American scholar who has written a book on Iran and who had just arrived from Tehran. She said that just six months after Ahamdinejad entered office in 2005, $200 billion of capital fled Iran to other countries. Two hundred billion dollars? How is this possible? Nobody asked about the source and accuracy of the number, which I have heard floating around Iranian scholars' discussions.
I was also surprised when another scholar completely denied a fatwa was issued by Iran's Supreme Leader about Iran's nuclear energy program in 2004, calling nuclear weapons unacceptable under Islam. At the time, this fatwa was on the front pages of Tehran's newspapers and was one of the reasons behind the Iranian leader's defiance in pursuing the controversial nuclear dossier.
I was, however, not surprised when another scholar completely denied the existence of the women's movement in Iran, right before a scheduled talk given by a woman activist from Tehran who is closely involved in this movement. In her talk, she described how women in Iran are battling with the hardliners to change Iran's laws. Despite what the "armchair scholars" in the U.S. may think, she explained that Iranian civil society organizations resist against extensive amounts of intimidation by the government, lobby different layers of power and try to mobilize people with their message of change.
The key issue is that these days in Tehran, any kind of information highlighting the insufficiency of Ahmadinejad's government seems believable. On the other hand, the fear of a possible U.S. attack has led many people concerned about another fiasco in the Middle East to filter the information through certain lenses that do not reflect the truth and can be misleading if journalists take it at face value. Iran is not just Ahmadinejad and hardliners, and without understanding different sources of power it is nearly impossible to give a clear image of one of the most complex societies in the Middle East.
Journalists' very limited access to Iran, which has been reinforced by the Islamic regime during the past few years, has not only blurred reality and produced a series of myths about a country at the core of international concerns, but also has confused many of the scholars and academics who try to understand Iran from outside its borders. The ICFJ seminar was extraordinary in illustrating the peculiar circumstances of reporting on Iran and the challenges affecting the quality of our work.