The Iranian government, suffering under the weight of U.S. sanctions and faced with widespread protests (which it tried to crush with brutal force), is on the shakiest ground since the inception of the Islamic Republic. This is adding an incredible amount of pressure on the country’s already muzzled corps of domestic journalists, as the authorities try to stem the flow of bad news.
The shootdown of a civilian aircraft minutes after taking off from Tehran’s international airport by the country’s own military, the disqualification of thousands of candidates ahead of parliamentary elections — including 90 sitting lawmakers — and the government’s apparent negligence in addressing the outbreak of coronavirus, all top the list of stories that Iranian journalists have been obstructed, through arrests and intimidation, from covering in the first two months of this year.
Iran’s local newspaper industry, though tightly controlled, has been able to publish multiple perspectives, and has done so since the late 1990s. Heated debate and intense criticism of the last three presidential administrations were common and encouraged in their pages.
But that space seems to be closing.
“Journalists played no role in the recent parliamentary elections, even though there were mass disqualifications of candidates and many other developments to report on,” a longtime print and online reporter in Tehran, who asked for anonymity for obvious reasons, told me. “Take a look at the front pages of our newspapers. They seem like PR, if not outright propaganda.”
Censoring journalism is not new in Iran, nor is it a uniquely Iranian problem, but Tehran appears to be innovating ways to suppress freedom expression — trends that are hitting the local journalism community particularly hard.
For decades, Iran has ranked among the world’s worst abusers of journalists and most egregious censors. But while the regime’s record remains consistently terrible, the tools and tactics of silencing journalists are becoming increasingly tailored to fit the digital age.
What do they look like?
Iran’s security services recognize that news about imprisoned journalists travel fast and may backfire, especially in times of domestic turmoil. So they use sustained intimidation and surveillance.
“Our colleagues have to go through long hours of extreme interrogations every day of the week, being threatened with their lives, their loved ones and their private life, but on paper they are free and are not sitting in jail,” a Tehran-based journalist told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) last month. “This is good for the government’s record internationally, isn’t it?”
A journalist in jail may present a liability — international condemnation and pressure — but one that has been silenced, forced and threatened to collaborate with the authorities, or simply paid off is easier to manage.
So far this year, at least 20 reporters and editors have been subjected to this new wave of systematic intimidation according, to the CPJ and other organizations that monitor the treatment of the press internationally.
To be sure, some have been detained for a few days. Others have been arrested, charged and put on trial that result in harsh sentences, only to be released on bail contingent on their not reporting on sensitive issues. Most are charged with a new class of crime that we are starting to see around the world: producing “fake news” or “disrupting national security” have become recognizable catchphrases for a state’s intent to silence a critical press.
“The saddest part is this that we are getting used to it,” the Iranian journalist told me. “It’s becoming usual to hear that the intelligence services have summoned a journalist. When that happens, it means they are in real trouble, but as their colleagues there’s nothing we can do. Gradually, we’re becoming indifferent to it.”
Many journalists are leaving the profession entirely. I can’t blame them. They have lost their voices and are risking a lot in poorly paid positions and have little prospect for career development and fulfillment. Who could tolerate such situation?
The Iranian public’s trust in traditional news sources is quickly eroding, perhaps beyond repair. People are increasingly turning to social media for information. The coronavirus outbreak is a perfect example. While the state continues to use the airwaves and printing press to under-report the severity of the outbreak, brave medical professionals are taking to Twitter and Instagram to sound the alarm bells, but also offer advice to citizens.
That sort of citizen-led information sharing is invaluable, but it will never be able to replicate the role of the news media. One wonders how long such an approach is sustainable, as the state has ample resources it can deploy to disinform.
As we better understand it every day, social media is no eternal spring of credible information and civil discourse.
I suppose if things get really contentious, Iranian authorities could simply shut down the Internet again, as they did during last November’s protests.
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