Hapless victims or arrogant trespassers?
Worlds apart, but a few clicks away on the remote control, Western and Middle Eastern media presented starkly opposing views of the standoff over Iran’s capture and release of 15 British sailors and marines.
According to CNN, the 14 men and one woman had been subjected to “mind games, isolation, aggressive interrogations” at the hands of the Revolutionary Guard after their capture while on patrol last month in the Persian Gulf.
But on Al Arabiya, a pan-Arab news TV station, the Britons’ revelations after their release “showed contradictions” and appeared staged. And Iran fired off its own allegations of abuse Saturday, charging that U.S. officials and the CIA took part in the kidnapping and torture of an Iranian diplomat in Iraq.
From beginning to end, the strange standoff between Britain and Iran over the detention of the sailors was shaped more by underlying geopolitical tensions and mistrust than the maps and satellite coordinates trumpeted by both sides.
The propaganda war began from the moment the Iranian gunboats surrounded the British sailors off the Shatt al Arab waterway and took them captive: Iranians took care to tape scenes from the March 23 capture.
One showed Faye Turney, the sole female captive, sitting in a boat, a red-white-and-green Iranian flag fluttering above her.
Britain complained that its military personnel were being “paraded” before television cameras in violation of international conventions for the treatment of detainees. “Forced to confess again, paraded on TV again, their ordeal goes on,” London’s conservative Telegraph newspaper declared in a headline.
But in Iran, the state-controlled and heavily censored broadcast media consistently depicted the sailors as lawbreakers who trespassed onto Iranian territory but were being treated well, despite the protests of the “arrogant” Britons.
The televised scenes of soldiers sitting before flowery pink curtains and sprawled out on a rug munching pistachios struck many in the region as comical.
At Wednesday’s news conference announcing the Britons’ release, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took on a theatrical air.
Always a showboat who adores the media limelight, he delivered a 45-minute oration recounting Iran’s 7,000-year history and pinned medals on the Revolutionary Guards who had seized the Britons before declaring he would release them as a show of goodwill in honor of the birthday of the prophet Muhammad, Easter and Passover.
Ahmadinejad’s news conference took place just as Iran’s newspapers, which have been more critical of his administration than the broadcast outlets, began publishing again after a two-week holiday.
With the sailors and marines back in Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair took care not only to publicly thank those who helped gain the sailors’ release, but to reach out to the Iranian people.
“We bear you no ill will,” he said. “On the contrary, we respect Iran as an ancient civilization, as a nation with a proud and dignified history.”
Glaring differences quickly appeared between Arabic and Western media in the amount of attention the incident received after the sailors and marines were handed over.
Once the freed Britons gave a news conference Friday, CNN International, BBC World and Fox News began covering their revelations vociferously. CNN went live to a correspondent who began interviewing the released sailors after their news conference.
“They feared the worst at the hands of the Iranians,” anchor Suzanne Malveaux said.
Although Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera channels started their news bulletins Friday with reports of the Britons’ news conference, they didn’t spend much time on analysis. Producers juxtaposed the warm handshakes the sailors shared with Ahmadinejad two days earlier and their latest statements.
Al Jazeera’s main Friday night political show instead devoted its attention to U.S.-Syrian relations in light of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Damascus, the Syrian capital.
Iranian state-controlled television also did not dwell on the Britons’ news conference. It showed scenes and reported that the six men who appeared “read from pages dictated to them” by others, implying that they were staged.
“After spending 26 hours in quarantine and questioning, six of the 15 released British marines appeared in front of news cameras to read out a text that in part recanted earlier statements made by them while in Iran,” the TV newsreader said, according to a translation by BBC Monitoring.
By Saturday, the sailors’ release and the news conference denouncing their treatment by Iranians were no longer in the forefront of news bulletins. Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera focused on Iran’s response to the news conference.
“Immediate transfer of the marines to a military base, dictated instructions and coordination between the British and U.S. media on simultaneous release of a purposeful press conference cannot damage the existing evidence and documents on violation of Iran’s territories by the British military,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Hosseini said.
Iranian broadcast channels zeroed in on diplomat Jalal Sharafi, released in Iraq on Tuesday after two months in detention. He said English-speaking CIA officials interrogated him and oversaw agents of an Iraqi intelligence agency.
He showed reporters large bruises on his body and said they had been inflicted by CIA agents.
“Upon hearing my response about Iran’s official relations with the Iraqi government and officials, they continued torturing me,” Sharafi, an official in the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, told the official Iranian news agency.
Many Iranians eschew state-controlled media and turn to pro-Western Persian satellite channels, including the U.S.-funded Voice of America. The Islamic Republic’s efforts, however, may not have been aimed exclusively to a domestic audience, but to curry favor in the Arab world. The government released exclusive video confessions first to Al Alam, its Arabic-language station.
Although some analysts say it’s too early to tell how the detentions will ultimately be perceived, most chalked it up as a victory for Tehran.
“Ahmadinejad was able to pull off a propaganda coup as he seeks to push his image as a decisive regional player,” said an April 5 editorial in the Peninsula, a Qatari newspaper. “The Iranian leader has milked the crisis well, on the one hand showing his people that the former colonial power Britain is not militarily so omnipotent, and on the other, boosting his credentials with his neighbors.”
Such sentiments were reflected in television coverage by privately owned media outlets, but also state-controlled broadcast channels and newspapers, said Hussein Amin, a professor of media studies at the American University in Cairo.
“Iran is an Islamic state and part of the Islamic world,” he said. “The way the anchor talks when he talks about the issue, the tone of his voice, it conveyed victory for the Iranians.”
Special correspondents Raed Rafei in Beirut and Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.