Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Can members of diaspora be reliable and unbiased reporters?

It is hard to imagine media outlets of 21st century and internet era struggling to get first-hand and verified news. Yet, there are times where they are unable to get their people on the ground. So, how do they report and where do they get their news from?

More and more media outlets are encouraging and relying on citizen journalism. They should all thank the web2.0 revolution and courageous individuals who report in extreme situations allowing the media and their audiences to quench their news thirst. When web2.0 patron saints fail, they tend to rely on “sources” - be it a correspondent or a journalist or alternatively a normal human being just like you and I -  to provide them with the latest news.

Either way, it is almost impossible for them to independently verify the story and news. Because if they could verify, THEY would be reporting it in first person and not relying on a third party or a “source” – as “reliable” as it may be.

Why this long preamble? I’ve been reading a series of book about contemporary Iran and just finished reading Honeymoon in Tehran, by Azadeh Moaveni. I could not help but compare Moaveni’s book with Christopher de Bellaigue’s In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs and The struggle for Iran and the creative and innovative travelogue Drinking Arak off an Ayatollah’s bread by Nicholas Jubber.

Generally speaking, for the media Iran is like a hermetically vacuum packed box of pistachio nuts – there are no flaps on this box that reads “tear here to open”. Intelligence services, the media, think tanks and others are all starving and craving for FRESH and sourced news from Iran.

As the Time magazine correspondent, Moaveni was in a vantage position to report from her home country. While I admire Moaveni’s candidness and courage, however at the same time, I believe she could have used her privileged position to give a more balanced assessment of her country’s realities. I wish she had followed de Bellaigue’s reporting model which would have enabled her to cover a wider spectrum of Iranian society and at the same time give a more balanced economic and political analysis of contemporary Iran.

Throughout the book I failed to understand why as an Iranian she referred to herself as a “foreign journalist”. Was it because she was reporting for Time magazine? Or because she thought her "foreign" status wourld open doors otherwise closed to Iranians?

Instead of focusing almost exclusively on the upper-middle class society – with their 7 day a week parties, the tales of illegal satellite dishes being removed by law enforcement officers or  the woes of censored internet -  given her position of a “foreign” journalist, Moaveni would have done her readers a service if she had concentrated more on telling the “story” and the plight of the taxi driver who shuttled her to her various “appointments” and reporting about issues such as high unemployment rate or the causes of soaring inflation.

Her obsession to focus on issues that would make foreigners cringe or “make news” abroad, made it very clear that this was a book for foreigners or perhaps the Iranian diaspora living in the States who had never been back to their home country since the revolution. I must say, despite the descriptions of Iranian education, health system and the modern Iranian wedding planners, Moaveni’s political statements and analysis were not convincing as they could have been.

I believe that members of diaspora and people coming from upper-middle class are not in a position to give an accurate picture of Iranian political scene. They are too biased. Quite frankly, I do not think anyone - be it in the country or abroad – really knows how the country functions and what really goes on, much less, accidental tourists who decide to “get their hands dirty” until such time that the going gets tough and they opt for “safety above the story”.

I wish Iranian writers who decide to write about contemporary Iran would expand their outreach beyond the upper-middle class lives of Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz and other big cities. I wish they would travel to other cities and rural areas and talk with people from all walks of life so that they can give a more balanced and accurate picture and out of realities, challenges, aspirations and inspirations of Iranian people.

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