Intelligence Agencies Exert Increasing Control over Media in Iran

A source in the Iranian government told the Campaign that Iran’s drive to restrict the ability of foreign media to operate freely in Iran is due to the fears of some officials that international press coverage can undermine their political interests.

(14 May 2012) Iranian authorities should end their undue restrictions on and intimidation of foreign-based journalists and media outlets, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran said today.

“Iranian authorities have long been repressing domestic journalists. Now it’s clear that they have turned an eye to neutering international press freedoms also,” said Campaign spokesperson Hadi Ghaemi. “We are increasingly seeing Iranian authorities using intimidation, arrests, censorship, and other methods to restrict foreign media from reporting on Iran.”

A source in the Iranian government, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Campaign that Iran’s drive to restrict the ability of foreign media to operate freely in Iran is due to the fears of some officials that international press coverage can undermine their political interests.

“The Intelligence Ministry, the Revolutionary Guards, and the National Security Council are pressuring the Deputy Minister of Culture who oversees the foreign press to give [these security agencies] more control over the way foreign media reports Iran’s politics and economy, as we approach the 2013 presidential election,” the government source said.

The government source also said that the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit is more active than other intelligence agencies in curbing press freedom in Iran. “The Guards believe that the Iranian government showed negligence and ineptitude in allowing foreign journalists to cover the 2009 presidential election and post-election unrest. So, they are trying to exert more control over the presence of foreign journalists in Iran,” the government source said.

Since the June 2009 election, authorities have threatened and interrogated several journalists, contributors, and their family members, as well as Iranians appearing in foreign media, including BBC Persian, Reuters, Newsweek magazine, and The New Yorker magazine.

Sources reported that Iranian intelligence officers threatened a Reuters journalist after the release of a video report about female ninjas in Iran.

On 16 February 2012, London-based Reuters News Agency released a report profiling Iranian women practicing the Japanese martial art of Ninjutsu. The report, originally entitled Thousands of Female Ninjas Train as Iran’s Assassins, misleadingly and distastefully referred to the female athletes as “assassins.” As a result, Iran suspended the press licenses of 11 Reuters journalists in Iran.

Press TV, an English-language news network run by the Iranian government, reported that the women in the Reuters report were pursuing a defamation lawsuit against Reuters.

The Campaign has recently learned that a few days after the ninja video’s release, the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture (Ministry of Culture) summoned the journalist who was responsible for the report. According to an eyewitness, when the reporter was at the Ministry of Culture’s offices in Tehran, the staff left the offices at one point, and then officers from the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit arrived and interrogated the reporter for several hours. The eyewitness said that the reporter was extremely frightened and was shaking after the interrogation session by the Revolutionary Guards.

The aforementioned government source alleged that representatives of the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit told the Ministry of Culture that “no word was to be said about the interrogation session.”

The Reuters reporter was also allegedly threatened and told that she should not speak about the interrogation, or else she and her family will face further difficulties. The government source claimed that authorities told the Reuters office in Tehran that if any news about the interrogation was ever published, their offices would never re-open.

“Iranian intelligence and security agencies are resorting to harassment, intimidation, censorship, and arrest of foreign media that produces stories it disapproves of in order to exert undue control over news coverage,” said Ghaemi. “The Minister of Culture himself has a responsibility to make sure security agencies don’t use his office to conduct politically-motivated intimidation campaigns against journalists.”

Laura Secor, contributor to The New Yorker magazine, described to the Campaign how Iranian officials tried to limit her ability to report on the March 2012 parliamentary elections.

“The week of the parliamentary election, visiting foreign correspondents were forced to comply, at times, with a program that confined us to buses and kept us together as a group and under watch,” Secor wrote in an email to the Campaign. “On the day of the election, we were expected to spend eleven hours on a bus, being taken to polling stations together with Iranian state television, which was filming us, and intelligence agents who were watching us. The only other option was to go back to our hotels, which we were forbidden to leave.”

“Over the course of the week, at least two of us were detained and questioned. In my case, I was questioned about my movements and my contacts, I was accused of being a spy, and some of my personal papers were confiscated,” Secor added.

Secor details her account in full in the 7 May 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

Since 2009, the number of foreign journalists allowed to enter and operate in the country has decreased notably. One Canadian journalist told the Campaign that Iranian authorities told her directly that they were rejecting her visa application because they were unhappy with her past coverage of Iranian affairs.

In practice, the Ministry of Culture keeps a file, which includes all published reports, of all foreign journalists working in Iran. This file is used when authorities decide whether or not to grant visas to applicants looking to enter Iran as journalists.

“In selecting journalists to report from Iran, a general effort was made to select reporters who had never covered Iran, or who had never published critical articles; though a few experienced reporters were also included in the list,” the government source told the Campaign.

As a result of growing restrictions on foreign journalists, only a limited number of journalists were invited to cover the Iranian Parliamentary elections this past March, the government source explained to the Campaign.

The Campaign has also previously reported the government’s obsessive attack on BBC Persian, which included satellite jamming, harassment of BBC journalists, and arrests of BBC contributors. In September 2011, authorities detained six independent documentary filmmakers because their films were licensed and aired on BBC Persian. In late January 2012, authorities seized a family member of a BBC Persian employee based in London, and then tried to pressure the family member to denounce the employee’s work with BBC Persian.

“A family member of one of the BBC Persian employees was detained and pressured to make online connections with the BBC employee,” Sadeq Saba, the head of BBC Persian, told the Campaign. “During that communication, the BBC employee was remotely interrogated to get information about BBC,” he continued.

Recently, Iran’s Press TV broadcast a report critical of BBC Persian called “Eye on the Fox.” In the report, several prisoners were shown “confessing” to working for BBC Persian, an act the government sees as a crime. The footage, reportedly provided to Press TV by the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit, was filmed secretly in Evin Prison interrogation rooms. The government’s Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) ran a similar program for domestic audiences.

According to the Campaign’s source inside the government, this production was not solely a media operation.

“Press TV is acting as the media arm of the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit at this time. This is why during the production of ‘Eye on the Fox,’ an IRIB program about the BBC, some of the film’s components were compiled by the Intelligence Unit. They use Press TV to put pressure on different media outlets,” the government source said.

Iranian intelligence agencies have a track record of using coercion and torture to extract false statements and confessions. At times, intelligences officers have worked closely with Press TV and other state media outlets to film and televise forced confessions, often of detainees before they have faced trial. Maziar Bahari, a former reporter for US-based Newsweek magazine, reported being made to make such a taped confession in July 2009.

According to the government source, Press TV was the government agency that turned the Reuters ninja report into a controversy. Reuters’ Tehran bureau was shut down only after Press TV complained publicly about the Reuters report. Press TV plays an important role in the Iranian government’s efforts to monitor and limit foreign media. “The channel [Press TV] has become the government’s watchdog as well as its prosecutor, judge, and jury when it comes to the foreign media,” said the Iranian government insider.

“In my opinion, Press TV, as the media arm of the Iranian government in general and the IRGC [Revolutionary Guard] in particular, tries to cut off the flow of information between Iran and the rest of the world,” Maziar Bahari told the Campaign.

“They try to do this through different means,” he continued. “First, they try to poison the environment through Press TV and to slander different individuals in the media. The second step is to try, through legal means, to prevent the activities of foreign press and media. The third step, which is a well-known and established method in Iran, is to use threats, force, and dismissal of reporters to limit and control their efforts to disseminate the news,” Bahari said.

“Foreign journalists, more than domestic journalists, need government cooperation to be able to work in the country,” Campaign spokesperson Ghaemi said.“Because of the fear that they might not get visas or might lose their ability to work in Iran, some journalists do not expose these threats and intimidation. But the government has taken advantage of this fear to prevent the international press from reporting critically on Iran.”