Saturday, October 2, 2010

Iran's (attempted) media management?

Last week I had some thoughts on Iran's President Ahmadinejad, his visit to the U.S. (as a part of the UNGA meetings), and all the media blitz surrounding him. Al Jazeera's Listening Post dedicated their leading story this week to his visit, and I thought I'd share it here as a follow up to the posts I had before.

The program does a good job in questioning American media's approach to Ahmadinejad, and criticizing them for making him the highlight of the UNGA coverage. It also tells the story of Hossein Derakhshan, the Canadian-Iranian blogger, who was sentenced to 19.5 years in prison last week. I will get back to this point a little later.

Another very interesting Iranian-related event this week was the meeting of the Russian and Iranian bloggers at the Iranian embassy in Moscow. Promoting citizen/digital diplomacy and "civic activism"? Great. One thing both sides seem to have missed, however, is that for such initiatives to work they have to be truly civic, or at the very least, appear to be such. Holding "blogger" meetings at countries' official representations certainly does not give one the impression of independent and genuine dialogue. This is especially the case when one of the "bloggers" is the Iranian Ambassador himself...

According to Норвежский Лесной, who participated in the meeting, the conversation focused on:
"The modern history of Iran and its extremely difficult relationship with the U.S.; its differences from other countries of the region;  Iran's life and development in isolation; myths - how Iranians see Russia and how the Russian citizens see Iran; tourism (over two thousand Russians visit Iran every year - this figure does not include Russian contractors in Iran; while about five thousand Iranians come to Russia every week - they mostly visit Moscow and St. Petersburg); sources of information about Iran; the peculiarities of photojournalists' work in the country; the Iranian Ambassador's blog in Russian; and the readiness of the embassy to assist the invited Russian bloggers in gaining a closer acquaintance with the country of Iran."

Ambassador Sajjadi's official blog was a real discovery for me. Fluent in Russian, he not only promotes all the wonders Iran's got to offer, but also puts out arguments and responses to major media issues. Here is what he had to say about Hossein Derakhshan's sentence in his latest blog post (October 2, 2010):

"Regarding the blogger who was sentenced in Iran: Islam encourages scientific discussion on religious issues, and opposes the blind following of dogma. At the same time, Islam strongly opposes insults, slander and blasphemy. People are free to doubt the existence of God or the prophetic mission of Muhammad and the Koran, and can discuss these points so as to either accept or reject them in the end. But profanity is strictly prohibited. According to the Islamic law, if someone offends Jesus or the Virgin Mary, he will be imprisoned. Hossein Derakhshan was imprisoned not for the fact that he was a blogger, but for the blasphemy and the gravely indecent remarks he had made about Islam."
It would have helped to provide at least some links to support his point...

In any case, seems like Iran is improving its skills of foreign public engagement, and Russia - being the not-so-hostile territory - is a great place for such test-runs (I'm sure the case of the Moscow Embassy is not the only one, and that there are many others out there). Then, there is also the Iranian Cultural Center in Russia, with its shiny and pretty substantive website.

Awesome public diplomacy, isn't it?

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