Detainment Sees Low Media Coverage

Recent Situation of Alumni Detained in Iran Has Not Been As Publicized as Previous Cases

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Analysis: Role Of The Media

Assistant University News Editor Zach E.J. Williams and Assistant City News Editor Zach A. Williams in conversation over their article on the Iranian detainees and the role of the media in both the United States and Iran.

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The recent detainment of three UC Berkeley graduates in Iran is something experts on the

region have seen before.

Following precedent, alumni Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal would be detained, accused in the Iranian national media of subverting the government and be transferred to the country's heavily criticized Evin prison. Meanwhile, in the United States, the media would release stories featuring distressed family members trying to drum up public awareness.

Expectations, for the most part, have come true.

However, as the detainment enters its second month, changes to the normal pattern have surfaced. Experts now point to several differences between this case and other high-profile detainments of U.S. citizens in Iran-all of which make it more difficult to predict an outcome, experts say.

Unlike some recent cases, the three detainees were relatively unheard of before their July 31 border crossing drew a flurry of media attention. And since their detainment, Iran's news wires have only sparsely mentioned the trio-a far cry from the "show trials" experts say are used to extract public confessions.

In a recent case, respected scholar Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., was detained in 2007 while in Iran helping her ailing mother. After a trial highlighted in the national media, Esfandiari confessed publicly to having subverted the government.

Hamid Algar, a UC Berkeley professor of Near Eastern Studies, said recent political turmoil in the country-such as the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that led to widespread demonstrations-could be responsible for the Iranian government's lack of attention on the trio.

"It's not receiving widespread coverage in the Iranian press ... because of the large amount of internal preoccupations which are growing by the day," Algar said.

Recent reports released by the country's media have indicated that the Iranian government will be investigating the trio's illegal entry for some time.

"It should not be expected that those who

entered the Islamic Republic of Iran's soil illegally be released soon," said Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of the Iranian Parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, in an Aug. 13 Fars News Agency report.

According to Hossein Ziai, director of Iranian Studies at UCLA, Iranian press outlets are limited by government censorship that reflects the political aims and divisions within the regime.

"The Iranian media, especially nowadays, are not the equivalent of what we call the free press," he said. "Most of what therefore is put in the media ... are in some way part of the propaganda machine of the state, and they represent various factions from the radicals to the fundamentalists."

Coupled with what experts call unreliable news sources in the region, major American and international news outlets have been limited in their ability to report on the detainments.

"Frankly, there has not been very much news to report," said Neil Henry, dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. "We are dealing here with a repressive government in Iran, where domestic and foreign reporters are barred largely from inquiry."

Continued media coverage of the detainments is necessary to ensure that U.S. government officials continue efforts to negotiate the release of the three alumni, Ziai said.

"It's impossible to say at this time what will happen," he said. "(But) public opinion here in the United States should be kept alive."

Geneva Overholser, director of the School of Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, added that publicity efforts made on behalf of the trio are subject to the ebb and flow of the American media.

"These incidents seem to have patterns in which they come to public recognition, and they build, and they fade," she said.


Contact Zach A. Williams and Zach E.J. Williams at [email protected]

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