Director Asghar Farhadi, Best screenplay award winner for the film "Forushande" (The Salesman), poses during a photocall after the closing ceremony of the 69th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, May 22, 2016.  Photo: Reuters/Jean-Paul Pelissier
Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, winner of the Best Screenplay award for the film Forushande (The Salesman), poses during a photo call after the closing ceremony of the 69th Cannes Film on May 22, 2016. Despite his fame, he is not spared from smearing. Photo: Reuters / Jean-Paul Pelissier

For nearly two decades, the global media coverage of Iran has functioned in such a way that the name of the country has been bracketed with a pernicious nuclear program and malign conspiracies to destabilize the Middle East and beyond.

That Iran has been receiving bad press for a long time is not a mystery or the allegation of a jingoistic mind. It is an inevitability attested to by the pundits and commentators of media organizations that let bias sweep through their reporting.

There are plenty of reasons to feel bitter about Iran, perceive its regional role as counterproductive and consider its brand of statecraft as erratic. The Islamic Republic’s foreign-policy adventures have been self-inflicted wounds on a people that doesn’t approve of these escapades, and its visceral anti-American hostility is now viewed dubiously even by ardent establishment loyalists.

A country with such a markedly negative international footprint necessarily doesn’t win approving, upbeat media coverage.

But like it or not, the over-politicization of the representation of Iran in the global media, fixated on every detail of its nuclear quest, its proxy wars in the Middle East, its abduction and imprisonment of dual nationals, and other gloomy tropes, has actually produced an unfortunate side effect.

The collateral damage is the dehumanization of a population of 85 million, anyone with an Iranian heritage living anywhere in the world, and the indictment of a civilization that has enriched world culture, arts, literature and sciences but now is slipping from our collective consciousness, only to be found in history books and encyclopedias.

It is now a rarity to read stories in mainstream media about the Iranian baker who gives away bread to the impoverished residents in his neighborhood, the woman who pushed the boundaries to become the first female weightlifter in Iran, the young wanderlust from Isfahan who raised funds to cycle to every country in the world, and the child prodigy in Tehran who speaks 14 languages and solves the most sophisticated mathematical calculations mentally.

These are accounts of everyday Iranians the global media have silently agreed to shrug off, or play down simply because their audiences revel in more agitating bombshell announcements that Tehran is reaching new uranium enrichment thresholds or has conducted yet another military drill test-firing state-of-the-art ballistic missiles.

By cobbling together and purveying an image of an Iran that is unvaryingly hostile, aggressive, destructive and antagonistic, we in the media actually betray our subscribers and deprive them of an un-retouched and holistic understanding of a country that is not a monolith, is an important cultural force in the history of humanity, and whose people have diverse stories to narrate and passions, ambitions, hopes and lifestyles that may be worthwhile to explore.

On countless occasions during my trips to different countries on reporting assignments, I have been asked honest questions that speak to the depth of illiteracy the broadcast, print and online media have fed about Iran: How is Iran’s civil war evolving? Do you also celebrate birthdays in your country? Are girls allowed to study in Iran? Are there flower shops in your city? Is every Iranian citizen obligated by the government to pray five times a day?

To try to debunk the myths that the global media have attached to Iran is not synonymous with sanitizing a regime that is gripped by a crisis of governance and is hard-pressed to win hearts and minds at home and rationalize itself internationally. Rather, it is a step in the direction of fighting misinformation and ignorance and opening up space for critical thinking instead of being boxed in by toxic stereotypes.

Would we continue to be repelled by Iran if we learned about its people’s exemplary hospitality; the reputation of the nation as the fulcrum of a brain drain in the Middle East that sends thousands of smart physicians, engineers and scholars to Europe and North America every year; the roots of the country as the longest-standing surviving civilization in the world; and innovations such as algebra, refrigerators, landscaped gardens, windmills, postal systems and the first charter of human rights that the ancient Iranians introduced?

World class filmmaker

Currently, the 2021 Cannes Film Festival is under way in France, and the celebrated Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi is representing his country with the film A Hero competing for the Palme d’Or accolade.

Farhadi is arguably the international face of Iranian cinema in the 21st century. He is the only filmmaker from the Middle East to have won two Academy Awards. But he has snatched a slew of other international recognitions, too, including a Golden Globe and a César Award, making himself known as a progressive, forward-looking filmmaker working to improve the standards of Iranian cinema to make it palatable to a global audience.

Farhadi’s productions are sophisticated and thought-provoking, depicting Iran in a nuanced, coherent manner. He also communicates his own political messages in his films, which some of his diaspora critics weaponize to blast him because they are not caustic and pungent enough, they say.

Yet anyone working in the highly restrictive media atmosphere of Iran knows well there are limits to the freedoms a filmmaker or writer enjoys inside the country, and to expect ferocious, full-throated denunciation of the government by a locally based artist is a tall order.

Farhadi’s critically acclaimed movies are good places to start for those who wish to navigate the ups and downs of life in the Iranian society, and who find the corporate media’s portrayal of the nation too lopsided and unrealistic to stomach.  

‘Epic Iran’

Incidentally, for those who wish to delve into the nitty-gritty of Iranian culture and history and need an authentic resource, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is showcasing 5,000 years of Iranian art, culture and design in an exhibition titled “Epic Iran,” putting on display more than 300 ancient items ranging from ceramics and carpets to textiles, photos and sculptures.

The items have been collected from across the world to help organize the largest exhibition on Iranian history in Britain in some 90 years.

The event will run until September 12, and however curious its timing might seem – the two countries are squabbling over the fate of the Iranian-British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe imprisoned in Tehran on spurious charges – it is a venue where the lovers of history and culture can discover the other side of a nation.

With the barrage of unpleasant news being unleashed on us every day about Iran, it is certainly difficult to think independently and divergently, and lift ourselves from the echo chamber. But the media, however forceful they are in shaping our mentality and mindsets, cannot totally incapacitate our ability to distinguish between fact and fiction, news and commentary, truth and fake news.

Sometimes, to give those we have come to “otherize” the benefit of the doubt and dwell on the possibility that other people, other nations and other territories may have their own exclusive stories, lineages and tales will help us expel prejudice and view the world and its inhabitants more inclusively.

Kourosh Ziabari is an Iranian journalist. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow. Kourosh was named a finalist in the category of Local Reporter of the Year in the 2020 Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism.