The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Journalism in Iran nears extinction

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, left, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at a meeting at the Iranian foreign ministry office in Tehran on Monday. (Presidential office handout/EPA-EFE/REX)

Authorities in Iran are preemptively tightening the reins on media outlets working inside the country. The regime has, of course, always tried to control the flow of information to the rest of the world. But now, as it faces mounting internal and external pressures, the Iranian political establishment is going to new lengths to silence journalistic voices in attempts to present a unified message of resistance to the world.

Without a hint of irony, on Monday the Islamic Republic marked its annual commemoration of Journalists’ Day, as it always does, by laying thick praise on the brave souls who deliver news to the public.

The highlight of the day was an address by the Islamic Republic’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, inside the main hall of the ministry he runs. It’s a place that reporters who cover Iran know well.

Located very close to Tehran’s labyrinthine grand bazaar, the foreign ministry gives Iran’s top diplomat a perfect platform for presenting his message to visiting dignitaries and foreign correspondents. But on this Journalists’ Day, many of the reporters working for the international press were nowhere to be found.

According to sources in Tehran, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance — the Orwellian-named entity that handles press credentials — has suddenly stopped granting permits to journalists working for foreign media. No one has explained why.

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Traditionally, such credentials are issued for a year at a time and then extended in late July, on the first day of the second quarter of the Iranian calendar year. This year, though, most correspondents received only three-month conditional extensions, while several others working for major news outlets — including U.S.-based ones — have not received a permission at all.

This is a familiar strategy employed by authoritarian regimes like Iran’s, to intimidate and encourage self-censorship among foreign correspondents. News organizations are well aware of these strong-arm tactics, but they have generally chosen to maintain their presence in the country, preferring a limited ability to report from the ground over having no presence at all. Iran, though, is making it difficult to keep up that compromise.

But the targets in this latest media squeeze extend beyond the foreign press. Domestic critics of the Rouhani government are getting caught up in it as well.

The surprising closure this week of Vataan Emrooz (Homeland Today), a newspaper aligned with the intelligence unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), offered a clue to the government’s actions. In public, the shutdown was blamed on a lack of funds to pay for the soaring cost of paper, but no one is buying that excuse.

The daily, which was known for publishing conspiracy theories, outrageous cartoons and alleged interrogation transcripts of political prisoners (including me), enjoyed a free hand to run any sort of story it chose, especially those that criticized Rouhani’s policy of engagement with the United States. Zarif was a favorite target.

Just last month, forces aligned with the Revolutionary Guard launched “Gando,” one of the highest-budgeted television programs in Iran’s history, without any support from traditional sources of funding. The series, about a spy network broken up by the IRGC, was billed as based on real events and took a particularly harsh view of Zarif as weak and Westernized.

The foreign minister took the unusual step of complaining to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, about the television show and his portrayal in it. The newspaper appears to have been a collateral casualty of the internal spats among competing factions.

And now Zarif is benefiting from a sudden outpouring of support — also from some of his former enemies. Since he was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department last month, he has been lavishly praised by a range of Iran’s political elite, Revolutionary Guard commanders among them.

Surely, you object, the death of a hard-line newspaper has nothing in common with the denial of accreditation for foreign media.

But this is Iran, where apparent contradictions often reveal underlying consistencies. What we’re seeing now is the coalescing of forces within the regime. Hard-liners and liberals alike are uniting around the common narrative that the Islamic Republic is standing up to American hegemony and defending the rights of the Iranian people.

That’s because the country’s leaders know they’re about to head into a period of crisis. The standard of living has declined sharply, vital medicines are in short supply, and the prospect of war feels increasingly threatening. The way everything is being reported, though, one would think that Zarif and his troubles are the only news that’s fit to print.

Headlines from Iran in recent days have been dominated by news that Zarif received and rejected an invitation to an Oval Office meeting with President Trump.

Zarif returned to Tehran on the offensive, happily harvesting applause from friends and foes for stiffing the Americans. Clearly angered by the impending collapse of the 2015 nuclear deal he helped to negotiate between world powers and Iran, the foreign minister is using every opportunity he can to justify the deal, but also to complain about how he’s been treated by the United States and rivals inside Iran.

Yet the current focus on the alleged misdeeds of the Great Satan is a sideshow. The regime is preparing for a long siege — and journalists are already paying the price.

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