Sunday, June 21, 2009

Lies, Fantasy And Twitter In Iran Elections

By Roger Alexander

Twittering "truth” out of Tehran these days has become an industry in own right. Amazingly, by basing its stories and analysis on 140-character "tweets" emanating from Iran, virtually the entire Western media is unanimous that the Iranian presidential election last week was “stolen” by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with the blessings of the “clerical regime.” It is claimed that the fraud was committed to keep out of office the “moderate, secular, and pro-US” former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi.

The coverage by the Western corporate media typifies a presentation of Ahmadinejad's victory over Mousavi, that abandons any pretence of journalistic objectivity. It is sheer propaganda aimed at discrediting the election result.

A typical example: The Christian Science Monitor quoted Farideh Farhi, an 'expert' of Iranian elections at the University of Hawaii, saying, “I am convinced they just pulled it out of their hats.” Indeed, it is easy to be “convinced” when you're half way across the world on the beautiful Waikiki Beach.

I hold no brief for Ahmadinejad. But the manner in which the Western corporate media continues to demonise a sovereign nation and its president borders on the obscene. And they are steadfast in their belief that they, and not the people of Iran, are the agents of social change in that country.

The Western media has conveniently forgotten that Ahmadinejad has strong support among urban workers and the rural poor—the vast majority of the population. That Ahmadinejad (who was previously mayor of Tehran and commands a substantial base among the urban poor and in the rural areas) has retained this constituency is a fact grudgingly acknowledged by various Western commentators.

Besides, it is not mentioned that Mousavi campaigned as no less an ardent defender of Islamic clerical rule than Ahmadinejad. On domestic policy, he vaguely called for more openness, while opposing Ahmadinejad’s “populist” subsidies to the urban poor and the peasantry.

The media has also not sought to explain why the mass of the Iranian people should be expected to support an advocate of the same free market policies that have produced a social disaster throughout the world.

Still, directly reflecting the outlook of the Obama administration, the corporate media promoted the candidacy of Mousavi and depicted a rising tide of “popular support” that was certain to either sweep the “reformer” into office or obtain a close enough result to force a run-off contest with Ahmadinejad.

In their function as conduits for the state and US imperialist policy, the corporate media is seeking to promote the notion that a victory for Mousavi would have represented a “triumph of democracy” and opened up a new chapter in US-Iranian relations. The only possible explanation for Ahmadinejad’s landslide victory, they immediately concluded, was “fraud”. But is there a fraud involved?

There is no reason for anyone to believe Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who said yesterday (June 19) that the election was fair. So the next best thing is to look at the analysis undertaken by independent American scholars and reported in the media.

Writing in the online journal Slate, University of Wisconsin mathematician Jordan Ellenberg applied some statistical analysis to what critics identified very early as a suspicious consistency in Ahmadinejad's results.

Hours after polls closed on June 12, the blog Tehran Bureau pointed out that in the six waves of tallied votes, Ahmadinejad's total ranged from 62 to 70 per cent. Ellenberg wrote that consistency might look odd to American voters “who may be more used to seeing wide swings in the vote totals” because “our fine-grained media start reporting results when just a few per cent of the votes are in.”

But he found nothing statistically inexplicable about the results. The batches of the votes were sufficiently large, he said, that they naturally absorbed the extremes of popularity that one would expect in a diverse electorate and delivered averages that were more or less uniform but not identically so. “The official numbers may or may not be authentic,” he wrote, “but they're messy enough to be true,” Ellenberg concluded.

Indeed, opinion polls done before the election indicated that Ahmadinejad - as unpopular as he is said to have become for his handling of the economy - would nevertheless win by more than a 2-1 ratio - the same margin (63:34) as the final result.

An opinion poll sponsored by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund conducted on May 11 and 20 across Iran by 'Terror Free Tomorrow: The Centre for Public Opinion' and the New America Foundation, showed Ahmadinejad with 34 per cent of the vote and Mousavi with 14 per cent. While releasing the results, the TFT's press statement said, “About seven in ten Iranians think the elections will be free and fair, while only one in ten thinks they will not be free and fair.”

The Western corporate media is shouting from the rooftops that a “fraud on a massive scale” was committed, citing the “head-scratching” results in Mousavi's home province of East Azerbaijan where Ahmadinejad took 57 per cent of the vote, an astonishing improvement over his 2005 total of 10 per cent.

But the TFT pre-election opinion poll reported: “Inside Iran, considerable attention has been given to Mr Mousavi's Azeri background, emphasizing the appeal his Azeri identity may have for Azeri voters. (However), the results of our survey indicate that only 16 per cent of Azeri Iranians indicate they will vote for Mr Mousavi. By contrast, 31 per cent of the Azeris claim they will vote for Mr Ahmadinejad.” In other words, Ahmadinejad was 2-1 ahead even before actual votes were cast.

True to form, the Western corporate media is plumbing new depths reporting Iran. Earlier it was Iran's “nuclear ambitions,” now it is all about “eye-witness accounts” of sham elections, the takeover of party offices, a massacre on a university campus, an imminent coup d'etat, the possible overthrow of the whole 30-year-old Islamic Republic, and the isolation of an entire country as its communications are systematically shut down. Lies are being palmed off as gospel.

Secret memos and “smoking gun” documents are playing their role in fuelling outrage. Before the election, Newsweek quoted “secret Iranian government polls” that showed Mousavi would win 16-18 million votes and the incumbent a third of that.

After the results were out, a widely circulated letter, “written by the minister of the interior to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei”, sought to prove the results were fixed at Khamenei's orders. The letter also provides “real” vote totals that more or less tally with the secret polls Newsweek reported - 19 million for Mousavi and just under 6 million for Ahmadinejad.

But the (London) Independent's Robert Fisk, one of the few Western journalists reporting from Tehran, wondered aloud whether the letter was a fake. “However incredible Mr Ahmadinejad's 63 per cent of the vote may have been, could he really - as a man who has immense support among the poor of Iran - have picked up only 5½ million votes?”

Fisk is not an admirer of either Ahmadinejad or the theocratic regime in Iran. But he is an objective, old-school journalist and has wonderful stories to tell from the past week. “A day earlier, an Iranian woman muttered to me in an office lift (in Tehran) that the first fatality of the street violence was a young student. Was she sure, I asked? Yes, she said. I have seen the photograph of his body. It is terrible. I never saw her again. Nor the photograph. Nor had anyone seen the body. It was a fantasy.

“Earnest reporters check this out – in fact, I have been spending at least a third of my working days in Tehran this past week not reporting what might prove to be true but disproving what is clearly untrue.”

Here’s another beauty: “We had the famous instruction to journalists in Tehran from the Ministry of Islamic Guidance that they could no longer report opposition street demonstrations. I heard nothing of this. Indeed, the first clue came when I refused to be interviewed by CNN (because their coverage of the Middle East is so biased) and the woman calling me asked: Why? Are you worried about your safety? Fisk continued to spend 12 hours a day on the streets. I discovered there was a ban only when I read about it in The Independent. Maybe the Guidance lads and lassies couldn’t get through on my mobile. But then, who had cut the phone lines?”

Fantasy and reality make uneasy bedfellows, but once they are combined and spread with high-speed inaccuracy around the world, they make politically titillating headlines, as Fisk discovered to his dismay.

“Take the call I had five hours before the early-hour phone call, from a radio station in California. Could I describe the street fighting I was witnessing at that moment? Now, it happened that I was standing on the roof of the al-Jazeera office in north Tehran, (the most affluent section of the city) speaking in a late-night live interview with the Qatar television station. I could indeed describe the scene to California. What I could see were teenagers on motorcycles, whooping with delight as they set light to the contents of a litter bin on the corner of the highway.

“Two policemen ran up to them with night-sticks and they raced away on their bikes with shouts of derision. Then the Tehran fire brigade turned up to put out – as one of the firemen later told me with infinite exhaustion – their 79th litter-bin fire of the night. I knew how he felt.

“A report that Basiji militia had taken over one of Mir-Hossein Mousavi's main election campaign office was a classic. Yes, there were uniformed men in the building – belonging to Mousavi's own hired security company.

“Now for the very latest on the fantasy circuit. The cruel 'Iranian' cops aren't Iranian at all. They are members of Lebanon's Hizbollah militia. I've had this one from two reporters, three phone callers (one from Lebanon) and a British politician. I've tried to talk to the cops. They cannot understand Arabic. They don't even look like Arabs, let alone Lebanese.

“The reality is that many of these street thugs have been brought in from Baluch areas and Zobal province, close to the Afghan border. Even more are Iranian Azeris (from Mousavi's home province). Their accents sound as strange to Tehranis as would a Belfast accent to a Cornishman hearing it for the first time.”

Fisk concludes, “I am reminded of Eisenhower's comment to Foster Dulles when he sent him to London to close down Anthony Eden's crazed war in Suez. The secretary of state's job, Eisenhower instructed Dulles, was to say 'Whoah, boy!' Good advice for those who believe in the Twitterers.”

Roger And Out

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