For more than two months, journalist Golnaz Esfandiari has been reporting nonstop on the protests and brutal crackdowns erupting across Iran — from more than 2,500 miles away in Prague.
So she and her colleagues at Persian-language Radio Farda use secure messaging apps to communicate with their network of sources inside Iran, who could be jailed for speaking to the media. They spend hours analyzing videos from Iran to verify their authenticity. And they interview the families of protesters who have been killed.
“These people are really risking everything to send us videos of the protests,” Esfandiari said. “And they come speak to us because they trust us, and they know the state media are never going to give them a platform.”
The protests, sparked by the September death of a Kurdish Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, while in the custody of Iran’s “morality police,” have morphed into one of the most sustained challenges to the Islamic republic’s governance in decades. Authorities have responded harshly; thousands of Iranians have been arrested — at least six of them sentenced to death so far — while hundreds have been killed on the street, according to estimates kept by human rights groups.
Western news organizations have been almost entirely shut out of the country by state restrictions and security concerns. Meanwhile, the government has arrested more than 60 Iranian journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi, among the reporters who helped break the story of Amini’s death, were charged with acting as CIA spies, an offense punishable by the death penalty.
But the journalists covering the uprising from afar have been amazed that, despite the many risks, ordinary people from Iran are still sharing video footage.
“We never have seen it before like this,” said Jiyar Gol, a Kurdish Iranian journalist for the BBC reporting the story from London. “They really want the world to know about what is going on. People don’t fear anymore.”
Gol established contact with Amini’s family in September and managed to send a contact inside Iran to facilitate an interview with her father. In a broadcast on BBC Persian, Amjad Amini hotly denied the official state story that his daughter suffered “sudden heart failure” after she was arrested for supposedly failing to wear a hijab according to the Islamic republic’s rules; he said witnesses told the family that she was beaten.
“He was so brave,” Gol said. “Despite intimidation and threat and the danger of being put in prison, he refused to remain silent, and he talked to us.”
Still, the dangerous climate makes it difficult for journalists to capture the scope of the government crackdowns, and it makes them unable to independently verify figures such as death tolls, having to rely on human rights organizations for much information.
It can take news organizations weeks to nail down details of events in places where their reporters could not travel. As many as 96 people were gunned down by government forces outside a prayer complex in the southeastern Iranian city of Zahedan on Sept. 30, according to the New York Times, an incident that had “been largely concealed from Iranians by an internet blackout.” But it wasn’t until Oct. 14 that the paper confirmed enough of the incident, through witness testimony and videos, to publish its investigation. The Washington Post and CNN have also published investigations of events that took place weeks prior using similar methods.
Social media has played a crucial yet complex role. The primary method for people inside Iran to get information out, it has also enabled the spread of false information.
In the early days of the protests, a video circulated online purportedly showing Kurdish fighters standing guard outside Amini’s family house in Saqqez. It was a scene that could have bolstered the government’s allegations that Kurdish separatists had incited the uprising.
But Gol called his Kurdish political contacts — and discovered that the video was two years old and had no connection to Amini’s family.
“We realized it was the Revolutionary Guard deliberately spreading those videos,” Gol said. Other media outlets “simply saw it, and they showed it,” he said. “But we were very cautious.”
When a fire broke out at Evin prison, notorious for warehousing political dissidents, social media lit up with horrifying reports that some escaping prisoners had emerged into the middle of a minefield — a detail that made it into some Western news reports.
But at Radio Farda — part of the U.S.-funded but independently run Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty — Esfandiari and her colleagues contacted prisoners and their families and could find no one with knowledge of such an escape. She traced the detail back to an Iranian government-aligned news agency known for false reports, then saw a quote in a more reputable news service from a prison official denying the incident.
“You have to read between the lines” of official statements, she said.
Organized disinformation efforts have only muddled the picture, said Pouria Nazemi, an Iranian freelance journalist based in Canada. Some phony social media accounts pose as critics of the government to promote false news. People sympathetic to the protests “start to reshare that [content] in the heat of the moment,” he said. “The end result is a chaotic situation, with all the disinformation and misinformation mixed together, and it could be very dangerous, because some people inside Iran risk their lives based off of this.”
But there are also “honest mistakes and rumors” that get circulated, said Radio Farda director Kambiz Fattahi. Newsweek erroneously reported earlier this month that 15,000 protesters had been sentenced to death. Fact-checkers later traced the number to an activist news agency’s estimate of the number of protest arrests, conflated with the news that Iranian lawmakers were pushing a “no leniency” policy toward those detained that could include the death penalty. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted the false information, then later deleted it, which in turn became fodder for Iranian state media to accuse Canada of spreading lies, CNN reported.
The Iranians sending videos of protests and crackdowns out of the country have become increasingly savvy about how to help others verify them, adding details such as time, date and location and providing corroborating images from different angles.
But journalists find the details they derive from eyewitnesses and citizen reporters as essential as any digital fingerprint, Fattahi said. A video may show a massive protest, yet interviews are necessary to confirm the true scope.
“We can’t be in the business of wishful reporting and thinking,” he said, “so that level of trust and access is key in terms of verification.”
Journalists are also mindful not to endanger their tipsters. “Sometimes I don’t contact my sources when something big happens, because I don’t want to create the risk. I don’t want anyone to go to jail because of me,” Esfandiari said. “If there’s something important, they will come to me and contact me.”
Meanwhile, Iranian journalists working outside the country have been subject to hacking and phishing attempts. In Britain, police have warned of “credible” threats of kidnapping or killing, and the BBC has filed a complaint with the United Nations, saying Iran has been harassing its journalists and their families. The government has denied the allegations. When a Radio Farda analyst died in Berlin this year and his body was to be repatriated back to his family in Iran, his mother said his body was instead seized by Iranian security agents.
Despite the difficulties, journalists remain committed to getting the story out to the world.
“We see that people are coming to us and trusting us,” Esfandiari said. “They have nowhere else to turn to, and they want to be heard. That’s what we do.”