In recent months, the stability of the Iranian government has been threatened by widespread protests in late 2019 and the shooting down of a Ukrainian civilian aircraft in January 2020 amid heightened tensions with the U.S. The latest threat is the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit Iran harder than any country except China or Italy. As with other crises, Iran’s authorities have responded by stepping up censorship over an already-restricted press and social media landscape. This time, however, the government’s instinct to cover up bad news is having disastrous public health consequences.
As of March 20, Iran’s Health Ministry reported more than 1,400 deaths and nearly 20,000 cases of coronavirus, according to The Associated Press. However, on March 12, The Washington Post published satellite images of a mass grave near Qom, the epicenter of Iran’s outbreak, indicating that the death toll is likely much higher than the state is publicly admitting.
“Journalists were ordered to only announce the same official numbers that the Ministry of Health announces on daily basis. Some of my colleagues in Kurdistan and Isfahan were able to collect anecdotal numbers which were higher than the official numbers based on their local connections and filed reporting,” said a Kurdish journalist who covers human rights issues in the city of Sanandaj, and who spoke to CPJ on March 17 on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
“Both the judiciary and the Rouhani administration told Iranian journalists working inside the country not to cover the death toll caused by the coronavirus. They got in touch with the editors-in-chief in newsrooms and the administrators of Telegram and Instagram accounts,” the Kurdish journalist told CPJ.
Journalists who spoke to CPJ suggested that despite the fact that Iranian authorities initially announced the virus outbreak in the city of Qom on February 19, they covered up the rapid spread of the outbreak to ensure that citizens would turn out for February 21 parliamentary elections.
“The ruling system wanted to make sure they could go ahead with their election plans last month to show the world that the system is working fine and has people’s support,” Saeed Aganji, an Iranian journalist based in Finland, told CPJ on March 17. “And it’s clear that the government didn’t administer any precautions regarding the voters’ health. At least two of the incoming lawmakers were killed by the virus,” he added, saying that candidates and citizens attended rallies and events without being informed about the spread of the virus.
Initially the state claimed the disease would not pose a problem, but as the situation rapidly deteriorated and leaders scrambled to explain the situation, some blamed it on international sanctions, while others went as far as accusing the U.S. of waging biological warfare on Iran, according to news reports. Meanwhile, citizens struggled to educate themselves and share information about the risks of the virus, according to journalists who spoke to CPJ.
CPJ emailed the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which is responsible for issuing press credentials for all journalists in Iran, for comment, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
In addition to blocking news outlets’ reporting about the outbreak, the government has cracked down on journalists seeking to disseminate information about the pandemic online and through social media. According to CPJ reporting, in late February, during the early days of the outbreak, freelance economic reporter Mohammad Mosaed was temporarily detained over social media posts critical of the government’s lack of preparation to tackle the fatal disease. His Twitter and Telegram accounts were suspended by the security forces.
On March 5, security forces summoned a group of journalists in Saqqez, a city in Iran’s Kurdistan province, to court and sent them threatening phone calls for reporting that exposed a severe outbreak in the city that the central government tried to ignore, according to the exile-run website IranWire.
Security police arrested Fardin Mostafaei, a freelance Kurdish journalist who operates the Telegram news channel of the news website Saqqesrudaw, on March 5 and interrogated him over his reporting about the number of infected and dead in Saqqez, the U.K.-based TV news channel IranInternational reported.
“It is possible to get the real numbers in smaller towns but in bigger cities like Tehran or Isfahan, doctors and hospitals were ordered to not list the coronavirus as cause of death,” the Kurdish journalist told CPJ.
In Tehran, the judiciary summoned Mostafa Faghihi, editor-in-chief of the moderate news site Entekhab—which has previously been blocked by the judiciary—on March 10 and charged him with spreading lies for articles he published claiming that more than 20,000 people had been infected in the country and that 130 had died in one day in two cities, according to the moderate Hamshahri newspaper. He was forced to remove the stories and delete all related tweets, and he has gone silent on social media since going to court, according to a CPJ review of the site and his social media accounts.
A journalist who writes for the reformist Shargh Daily and was summoned to the media court in Tehran in early March because of his reporting on social media about the spread of the coronavirus told CPJ on condition of anonymity, citing fear of retaliation, “I was told not to portray the situation negatively in my writings and instead show support for the government’s efforts, otherwise, I will face consequences.”
“The limitations imposed by Iran’s government in controlling the media and information made it impossible for domestic journalists to do their work,” Aganji, the journalist living in Finland, told CPJ. He added, “They can’t cover the real numbers in the community and they can’t even report the correct number of the government officials who are infected because everything is being controlled. We mostly hear about Iranian officials being infected when their condition is already critical or after they have died. Before that the narrative is being completely controlled.”
On March 11, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi said in his weekly press conference that the government was creating a task force to be run from the Islamic Republic’s London embassy to combat what he called “fake news” from foreign-based media outlets, according to the U.K.-based Independent’s Farsi-language site.
“Our embassy in London is doing legal and field research to be able to combat this [false news],” Mousavi said, according to the Independent.
The Independent also reported that Tehran Prosecutor General Ali Alghasi-Mehr issued an order stating that, “in order to manage public opinion and the media, the judiciary will identify, document, and summon those who spread false news through various news websites, social media channels, such as Instagram, and other news sources in the shortest time possible.”
Despite these efforts to suppress information, Iranian journalists on social media and those in exile working for Persian language networks abroad are doing the kinds of journalism that the government has stifled, including reporting on suspected cases in various parts of the country that the government will not confirm.
For the time being, journalists reporting on coronavirus on Iran from abroad will have to continue relying on a combination of questionable official state statistics, anecdotal evidence, and social media.
“The Iranian journalists in exile are doing…good work with what they can have access to, but their biggest challenge is finding credible news through reliable sources inside the country,” Aganji told CPJ.