Some authoritarian governments try to hide their targeting of the press, but not the Islamic Republic of Iran. Officials there brag about it. Ahead of Iran’s presidential election Friday, they have much to brag about.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented a severe crackdown against the domestic press in the months leading up to the polls. Many websites and newspapers have been banned. The government has arrested at least 25 journalists this year. Most of those recently taken into custody have since been released, but as of April 15, at least 40 Iranian journalists were languishing in prison for their work, according to CPJ research. Only Turkey jails more journalists.
The message of these arrests is clear: do not challenge the official narrative. Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi claimed in March that 600 Iranian journalists are part of an anti-state spy ring associated with the BBC, and the arrests were an attempt to “prevent the emergence of sedition prior to the elections.”
But arresting local journalists is not the only way the government has attempted to “prevent sedition.” They have also sought to restrict international journalists through the three-pronged approach of restricting access, tightening control, and constricting communication.
According to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, over 200 international journalists applied for visas to cover this week’s election. Culture Minister Mohammad Hosseini warned that all the applicants would be closely examined to ensure that “contrary to what happened during the last election, Zionist spies are prevented from coming to Iran.”
It is not clear how many journalists passed the Zionist spy test. The ministry did not reply to my requests for comment. An international journalist on the ground said he has seen at least 20 foreign correspondents this week.
At least 15 international outlets are publishing under a Tehran byline or told me they received visas, including major players like The New York Times, The Washington Post, Financial Times, CNN, Agence France-Presse, The Associated Press, McClatchy, and Xinhua. Channel 4’s Jon Snow was also granted a visa, dispelling a rumor that all British media would be banned as part of the so-called BBC spy ring.
Several journalists, including some for major international outlets and freelancers told me that they were denied visas or never received an official response. They asked for anonymity to protect their chance of working in Iran in the future. It is never entirely clear why some outlets are let into Iran and others are not. But some of the journalists denied visas had written critically of the government in the past. In March, CPJ’s executive director, Joel Simon, criticized the mutually restrictive visa policies of the U.S. towards Iranian journalists and Iran towards American journalists.
In an interview with France Culture this week, the Iranian Ambassador to France, Ali Ahani, was asked by the station why it had not received a visa. He responded that more than 1,000 journalists had applied for visas, and that approximately 30 of the 100 French journalists who applied were approved.
Journalists who do make it to Iran will be under strict control of the Iranian government. All journalists operating there must work with a government-approved fixer.
Most journalists find their fixer through “media service companies” that claim to help international journalists navigate Iran and its government bureaucracy in acquiring visas, work permissions, interpreters, drivers, and technicians, and arranging interviews. As one company, ResanehYar, boasts on its website, the firm provides “every kind of services [journalists] might need.”
These media service companies are often staffed by former government officials looking to make a quick buck off their connections, journalists told me. For major outlets with deep pockets, the fees charged by these companies are high but accepted as necessary. For freelancers, they are prohibitive.
According to journalists, the companies also act as a privatized intelligence service for the government, reporting on the actions of their clients–where they went, who they interviewed, what they said. I contacted four of these companies–ResanehYar, Ivan Sahar, NNC, and Shiva Rasaneh–for further information about their services and relationship to the government. All of them did not respond or referred me directly to the Culture Ministry.
That is not to say that all fixers are agents of the government. Experienced journalists say they have found fixers they can trust. Many care deeply about their work, but like Iranians in all fields, they are caught within an authoritarian system that demands compromises–professional and otherwise. They don’t want to get in trouble, and their journalist clients don’t want to get them or their sources in trouble. So the chill of self-censorship sets in.
Laura Secor chronicled for The New Yorker what happens when journalists stray too far from government control. Reporting on last year’s parliamentary elections, Secor and other international journalists were corralled into a compulsory government program that bussed them to choreographed visits at polling stations and, of all things, the Alborz Space Center. They were told they could be arrested if they deviated from the plan. Secor shrugged off the threat, went her separate way, and wound up in an interrogation room.
Like last year, all international journalists covering Friday’s election have been told to stay at the Laleh International Hotel, several journalists told me. So far, the government has not announced plans to impose another mandatory program.
Even without such a program, it will be difficult and even dangerous for journalists to interview any voice that challenges the official regime narrative. One journalist who has worked in Iran said she decided to not cover this week’s election, citing her former translator who warned it would be a “waste of time and money” because she would not be able to report on the opposition.
Iran has long spied on communications between journalists and their sources. As Danny O’Brien warned in CPJ’s annual Attacks on the Press, “every journalist’s cellphone is untrustworthy [because they] make journalists easier to locate and intimidate, and confidential sources easier to uncover.” This is especially true in Iran. Surveillance and censorship of the Internet has also long been the norm, with even conservative and semi-official news outlets chafing under the regime’s control, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Golnaz Esfandiari.
What’s new are the extraordinary measures the government has taken to shut down the Internet all together. As Holly Dagres reported for al-Monitor last month, “the Iranian daily Ghanoon likened the state of the Internet in Iran to being in a coma–alive but barely functioning.”
Ali Bangi, the director of ASL19, an organization dedicated to supporting Iranians in bypassing Internet censorship, told me Iranian authorities have taken two particularly troubling steps in recent months. First, they changed the way they practice deep packet inspection, a process by which the government inspects every piece of data sent over Iranian networks. Previously, data packets were assumed innocuous unless proven otherwise. Now, the government considers all packets guilty until proven innocent, and blocks them pre-emptively. Second, the government has blocked the ports used by Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), a tool used by Iranians and journalists to circumvent government censors. These measures have also hindered the effectiveness of TOR, a tool to use the Internet anonymously, with the number of users plummeting by approximately 90 percent this year, according to the Tor Project.
The result is an unsafe and unreliable Iranian Internet. Social media, video, and communication websites and applications are either blocked or rendered unusable by slow Internet speeds. CPJ was even told by Twitter users that its recent video about imprisoned journalists was inaccessible in Iran. Yet ironically, numerous presidential candidates and the supreme leader operate social media accounts.
For journalists inside the country, these measures will make it even more difficult to communicate securely with sources. Fear of surveillance will make contacts less willing to speak openly or even talk at all. For journalists outside the country, it will be harder to follow events through citizen journalists and trusted sources–as they have covered the conflict in Syria. The government clearly wants to avoid a repeat of 2009, when mainstream media picked up a cellphone video portraying the slaying of Neda Agha-Soltan at the hands of the Basij militia.
Plotting against Iran
The Iranian regime has worked hard to choreograph this week’s election, with the Guardian Council already disqualifying 678 presidential candidates. And to ensure everything goes to plan, they have weaved a vast conspiracy to scapegoat journalists. In the process, they have revealed that the only true plot in Iran is one by the regime to maintain power at all costs.