Recently, my editors received a message from Iran’s permanent mission at the United Nations. Iranian officials were complaining about a minor detail in a story I had written. They claimed it was factually inaccurate, and they wanted a correction.
I’ll admit, it got under my skin a little.
For a year and a half that same government ran a very public and slanderous disinformation campaign against me while they kept me isolated in prison, blocking me from communication with the outside world and denying me the right to defend myself.
It was a double whammy of lies perpetuated by Iran’s state media, which spread hundreds, perhaps thousands, of false stories about me through the Internet, and regime officials who repeated the same baseless charges whenever someone asked about me.
The thing is, though, it really didn’t matter, because nobody bought it.
It was a tiny moment in the Islamic republic’s long war of attrition on expression. It’s a war that Tehran is clearly losing but refuses to give up.
In a new report, the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international watchdog group, calls out Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, for doing almost nothing to improve the Islamic republic’s abysmal record on free speech. He had pledged to do so during his campaign, but today, nearly five years into his presidency, he has failed to deliver.
Even so, the news isn’t all bad. The realities of the modern world — widespread Internet penetration, a highly educated and tech-savvy population that has grown accustomed to interacting virtually rather than in person, and broad access to broadcasts that challenge and often directly contradict state media outlets — are all changing the country in ways that are far beyond Iran’s theocratic leadership’s ability to control.
The CPJ report illustrates just how different (and ultimately futile) today’s authoritarians’ attempts at silencing dissent are compared to those of their predecessors.
The report is based on dozens of interviews with journalists currently and previously based in Iran (including me). It provides the most consistent portrait to date of how the regime’s approach to controlling information is evolving (and often falling short.)
The study highlights how Rouhani and other Iranian officials have often avoided giving interviews with reporters knowledgeable on Iran. I experienced this for years as a member of Iran’s tiny foreign press corps and now as someone who covers it regularly from abroad. Iranian leaders are happy to talk to reporters who have large audiences but aren’t familiar with the details of life in the country.
That, of course, is a relatively benign approach to controlling foreign coverage. But the regime also has a proven record of trying to control journalists based overseas by subjecting them to harassment, surveilling them and even imprisoning their family members. And when it’s a matter of responding to Iranian journalists, the government doesn’t hesitate to resort to thuggery that’s even more overt. Clearly, these are the only tools the authorities have left.
Spoiler alert: It’s a losing battle.
The CPJ offers some easy and potentially effective recommendations to the Iranian government, should it wish to do better. The group suggests that Iranian officials pass laws ensuring press freedom, cease harassing journalists at home and abroad, and stop trying to block information circulating online and via satellite.
But Tehran won’t take any of that advice. Maintaining control is the authoritarian regime’s default stance. In the absence of full control, the perception that you have it is the only viable alternative.
Iranian officials often complain that they don’t get a fair shake from the global media. Wherever one stands on the questions of the Islamic republic’s legitimacy or longevity, the fact remains that no one is better at creating bad press for Tehran than the regime itself.
The CPJ also makes several recommendations to members of the international community, especially the governments of the United States and the European Union, on how they can promote free expression in Iran.
Unfortunately, the leaders of the world’s freest societies are falling short. The report requests that the E.U. make press freedom a priority in bilateral and multilateral meetings with Iranian officials and “apply the EU Human Rights Guidelines on Freedom of Expression Online and Offline in agreements” with Iran.
In their outreach to Tehran, the Europeans have focused less on human rights issues, reasoning that the situation would start to improve once the nuclear deal started paying dividends, and thus increasing Rouhani’s political standing. But the agreement’s long-term prospects are in doubt now that the United States has left it. Europe still has leverage, though, and it should use it to compel better behavior from the Islamic republic.
The United States, though, has been particularly weak in actual support for free expression and democracy. The CPJ suggests that the United States help Iranians to obtain access software and online circumvention tools, while also better informing businesses about how they can legally service the Iranian people.
Although we’re living in a new world in which the tools of communication and the means to suppress it are evolving, we can still support freedom from afar the way we always have: by helping people express their demands and criticize their leaders.