In the public conscience, the global media is perceived not only as a watchdog monitoring politicians, leaders and decision-makers. It is often thought of as more of a guard dog with sharp teeth, ready to pounce on any perceived misdemeanor or foul play. And quite often, the perception is correct. The media quite rightly, is renowned for telling truth to power. That is, with one apparent notable exception – Iran. When it comes to Tehran and its authoritarian regime, the international media has a bad habit of giving them something of a free pass, or worse reflecting their narrative.
Take Iran’s persistent missile testing as a prime case in point. In the face of United Nations’ resolutions and international conventions, Iran continues to test ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons. The problem is not that the media is blind to the threat. CNN’s Sophie Tatum, Barbara Starr and Mike Conte for example reported earlier this month, that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of carrying out a missile test which violated UN Security Council resolution 2231. Similarly, Patrick Wintour in the Guardian reported European concerns over the same test.
However, the problem comes when Iranian missile tests are no longer mere allegations, rather established fact. Just days after accusations of the recent test, Iran responded with piercing clarity. As Reuters’ Babak Dehghanpisheh reported, a senior Iranian military commander, Revolutionary Guards aerospace division head Amirali Hajizadeh said, “We will continue our missile tests and this recent action was an important test… The reaction of the Americans shows that this test was very important for them and that’s why they were shouting.” And there, with Iran’s striking admission of a rogue missile test, the coverage comes to an end.
You would have thought that Iran’s brazen aggression in violation of UN resolutions would be worthy of further comment or examination? Yet, in the eyes of the media, with the exception of Bloomberg’s Behnam Ben Taleblu who questioned the lack of preventative action, it appears barely worthy of attention. While US and European allegations make the headlines, the reality of Iran’s dangerous military ambition is barely worthy of note. The effect is to give the diplomatic discussion over such tests greater prominence than the actual threat posed by Iran.
Iran’s leaders are also being given a free ride by the media over sanctions. The country’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Zarif recently admitted that “If there is an art we have perfected in Iran and can teach to others for a price, it is the art of evading sanctions.” Yet, the serious and deliberate violation of international requirements are barely reported. Instead, too many publications invariably insist on parroting the Iranian sanctions narrative. Zarif has often claimed in the Iranian media that international sanctions are the cause of great economic distress to the Iranian people, conveniently ignoring the fact that his government has increased military spending by 128% over the past four years. The likes of the Guardian appear happy to concur with Zarif, printing a lengthy piece explaining that the Iranian public “is both bystander and victim in America’s expanding drive to immobilise the Iranian economy through sanctions.”
The media’s unquestioning attitude towards Iran’s behavior extends to isolated incidents too. Reuters recently reported that a social media activist had died in an Iranian prison after a 60-day hunger strike. The article quoted a semi-official Iranian news agency, which said that the prisoner had been jailed twice for belonging to a royalist group and planning acts of sabotage including an explosion. The lurid claims went essentially unchallenged. Similarly, both Associated Press and Reuters recently covered the supposedly accidental death of a Revolutionary Guards general, who apparently killed himself cleaning his gun. Such ‘accidents’ often serve as a convenient excuse for something more nefarious in a rogue regime. Yet, no questions were asked by either publication, instead settling for straightforward quotes from Iranian sources.
From singular human rights cases to Iranian armament, the international media too often treats Tehran with kid gloves. Asking the tough questions, investigating a story further, is not always easy. However, it is surely the duty of the media, especially when it comes to a dictatorship with expansionist ambitions such as Iran.