Daniel W. Drezner

Video killed the radio star… when it comes to show trials

Laura Secor writes in the New Yorker about the bass-ackward effects of the Iranian government’s decision to televise the show trials.  I think she misses a key point, however:  Since the disputed Presidential elections of June 12th, about a hundred reformist politicians, journalists, student activists, and other dissidents have been accused of colluding with Western ...

Laura Secor writes in the New Yorker about the bass-ackward effects of the Iranian government’s decision to televise the show trials.  I think she misses a key point, however: 

Since the disputed Presidential elections of June 12th, about a hundred reformist politicians, journalists, student activists, and other dissidents have been accused of colluding with Western powers to overthrow the Islamic Republic. This month, a number of the accused have made videotaped confessions. But the spectacle has found a subversive afterlife on the Internet. One image that has gone viral is a split frame showing two photographs of former Vice-President Mohammad Ali Abtahi. Before his arrest, on June 16th, he is a rotund, smiling cleric; in court on August 1st, he is drawn and sweat-soaked, his face a mask of apprehension. The juxtaposition belies the courtroom video, making the point that the only genuine thing about Abtahi’s confession is that it was coerced through torture.

Show trials have been staged before, most notably in Moscow in the nineteen-thirties. Typically, such rituals purge élites and scare the populace. They are the prelude to submission. Iran’s show trials, so far, have failed to accrue this fearsome power. In part, this is because the accused are connected to a mass movement: Iranians whose democratic aspirations have evolved organically within the culture of the Islamic Republic. It is one thing to persuade citizens that a narrow band of apparatchiks are enemies of the state. It is quite another to claim that a political agenda with broad support—for popular sovereignty, human rights, due process, freedom of speech—has been covertly planted by foreigners.

I don’t doubt that the broad-based nature of support for change is one reason the show trials have rung hollow.  Still, isn’t this a case where the medium is the message? 

Stalin’s show trials were not broadcast on television — they were reported in state-run newspapers or aired, edited, over state-run radio.  This gives the state much greater editorial powers than a live television transmission.  Furthermore, as Secor’s first paragraph suggests, it’s the non-verbal cues that come from television that completely undermine the intended effect of the spectacle. 

It is possible that, in the future, more sophisticated CGI effects will allow governments the capacity to digitally edit these images, a la The Running Man, to maximize the desired effect (i.e., making Abtahi look as healthy as he did pre-incarceration).  For now, however, such efforts would only look like bad plastic surgery.  No, I don’t think televised show trials really work at all. 

Beyond Iran, have show trials ever worked in the television era?  This is a real question, readers.  About the only modern example I can think of where a televised trial of a political leader has broken the back of a movement was Turkey’s capture and trial of Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) leader Abdullah (“Apo”) Öcalan.  Öcalan’s complete about-face and rejection of violence during his trial had an effect on the PKK. 

I’m not sure the parallel holds up, since most Turks held genuine antipathy for Öcalan and the Kurds.  So, the question remains open — can show trials ever cement an authoritarian government’s legitimacy? 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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