Tehran's terror attack shakes the state National TV station more than the people
Twin attacks inside the Iranian Parliament and at the mausoleum of the first Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran have killed at least 17 people and injured more than 50 others. In this piece, Maryam Papi, a journalist based in Iran, writes about how the attacks have stoked debates about the decision of Iranian national TV to restrict the coverage of the incident to a news-ticker at the bottom of the TV screen in place of live coverage and debate
Maryam Papi Tehran
The Iranian parliament and Ayatollah Khomeini's mausoleum were struck by two simultaneous terror attacks. These attacks targeted two important symbols; parliament, the symbol of democracy and the house of the people, in the heart of Tehran, and the mausoleum of the founder of the Islamic Republic and the first supreme leader, in the south of the city. The attack on Khomeini's mausoleum took place three days after the 28th anniversary of his death. Shortly after the two attacks the ISIS website, Amaq claimed responsibility for them, proclaiming them to be their first successful terrorist operation in Iran.
Apart from security and political concerns, the attacks have triggered arguments about Iranian National TV’s (IRIB) scant coverage of the events. The Iranian security forces ended the attack on the mausoleum quickly. One of the attackers activated his suicide belt and the other was shot dead by the police before being able to take any action. In contrast to the mausoleum attack, the parliament counter-terrorist operations took more than four hours. During this time, national TV reporters were present at the scene but the process of the operation was not covered in detail. Despite being the main information source for a large number of Iranians, the state National TV station was almost silent while in the same circumstances in other counties, like the UK, the national media cover such events by interrupting their usual programs to provide necessary information to the public. However, Iranian TV stuck to its usual programs during the attacks and failed to fill the information gap. It decided to limit converge of the attack to a news-ticker at the bottom of the TV screen.
The likely aim of the national state TV channel was to undermine the impact of the terror attacks by giving them little coverage. Not only national state TV, but many Iranian officials also played down the attack. This included Members of Parliament, who were sitting in the pyramid building next to the office building that was being attacked. During the counter-terrorist operation, MPs carried on with their agenda for that day. Some MPs took selfies and posted them on social media to show that the situation was normal. Even the speaker of the Parliament, Ali Larijani, underestimated the gravity of the situation, describing the attack as a "minor issue."
In the absence of state national TV reports, the real image of the attacks was provided by news agencies and social media, particularly Telegram (the most popular app in Iran) and Twitter (despite it being filtered by the government). Still, they could not capture and depict the scene as well as a TV camera. Inevitably, the lack of information resulted in the publishing of inaccurate news by non-official sources with reports being contradicted later. The legal advisor of the former Association of Iranian Journalists, Kambiz Norouzi criticized the function of national TV in the Sharq newspaper: "They may make some excuses, claiming the desire to prevent fear and panic, for example. However, these kinds of words expired more than three decades ago".
While the official media policy in Iran was to play down the incident in an effort to demonstrate the lack of fear and the resolve of the Iranian people, hostile media took an aggressive approach, supporting the terror attacks in an attempt to terrify people. Al Arabiya English, in a tweet, quoted the Saudi Foreign Minister as saying, "Iran must be punished for its interference and support for terrorism in the region". Furthermore, the ISIS news website, Amaq, published a 24 second video from inside the Parliament while gunfire between the terrorists and the Iranian security forces was being exchanged. The video shows the body of an office worker lying on the floor of an MP’s office, the walls of which have been sprayed with bullets. In the video one of the attackers shouts: "Hold on" (in English) and continues: "Oh God, thank you... Do you think we will leave? No! We will remain, God willing (in an unknown Arabic accent)".
The content of the video shows the degree of ISIS hostility against Iran, it being a Shia dominated country in the front line of the war against terrorism. The ISIS attackers shot randomly, targeting anyone in the parliament that day. The bullets could not distinguish between Shia and Sunni. 20 seats out of 290 seats of the parliament are held by Sunni MPs.
The ISIS attack on Tehran was a symbolic action aimed at breaking the image of Iranian impenetrable security in front of the whole world. The short video was seen by all Iranians but it could not terrify its audience. Iranians do not need the editing techniques of their national TV service to induce unity against their common enemy.