Iranian Government Dictated to Local Media How to Cover Protests, New Documents Reveal
Journalists Will Be Charged with “Crimes” if Coverage Diverges from Official Line
Officials Expected Protests, Dictated Instructions to Media Before Price Hike Was Announced
November 25, 2019—While Iran is still reeling from the recent protests that have left scores injured, more than a hundred dead, and thousands arrested, the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) has learned that two main government ministries have silenced the domestic media by issuing directives dictating coverage of the unrest, in a blatant violation of freedom of the press. Intelligence ministry officials have also threatened journalists that they will be charged with “crimes” if their reporting of events does not hew to the official narrative of events.
Moreover, contrary to the widespread view that the government was caught off guard by the protests, CHRI has learned from an informed source who requested anonymity for security reasons that officials anticipated there would be unrest after the planned announcement of the gasoline price hikes. According to the source, state officials met with media publishers to instruct them on coverage of the expected unrest before the price hikes were announced to the public.
CHRI has confirmed the above account with two other journalists who had detailed and reliable knowledge of the meetings.
“It is now clear, the state’s preemptive directive to the media to censor coverage of the protests, the subsequent news cut-off and internet shutdown, and the violence exacted against the protestors all went hand-in-hand,” said Hadi Ghaemi, CHRI executive director.
“This was a calculated crushing of peaceful dissent.”
CHRI condemns this flagrant violation of freedom of the press, and calls upon the Iranian government to withdraw its directive dictating coverage of the protests and allow full and independent reporting of domestic news and events.
Journalists Told How to Cover the Price Hike Before It Was Announced
In an interview with CHRI, a journalist with detailed knowledge of these events, stated: “Before the fuel price hike was announced and the protests started, Supreme National Security Council officials briefed newspaper publishers on two occasions.”
“The meetings were one-way affairs; no discussion was allowed. The officials spoke about the possibility of an increase in the price of gasoline and the potential for protests in some regions and they advised that the media should cover the issues within the framework of state policies,” he added.
“The fact that the government expected protests to happen has huge implications for the state’s use of lethal force against the protestors,” said Hadi Ghaemi. “The state’s violence was not a product of unanticipated chaos but rather a planned state decision to violently and ruthlessly crush the unrest,” Ghaemi added.
Journalists Threatened by State Officials
Another journalist who spoke to CHRI added that during the last week, after the start of protests on Friday, November 15 and the shut down of the internet on the 16th to prevent the sharing of images and information, at least eight journalists had been summoned to Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence for questioning and that the Ministry of the Culture and Islamic Guidance contacted a number of journalists to warn them about the consequences of their articles and social media posts.
He said some journalists have been forced to sign a pledge that they would not report on the internet blackout, the people’s protests or the increase in the price of gasoline on social media.
“They have also been told not to write about these things in their media outlets and warned that any negative reporting will be seen as aiding the enemy and will be considered a crime,” said the source.
On November 23, Intelligence Ministry agents arrested journalist Mohammad Mosaed. In his last two tweets on November 18, Mosaed, who used to work for the economy desk at Shargh newspaper, wrote:
“In the absence of internet, the large cities have turned into thousands of small villages. When means of communication are cut off, the visible horizon reduces to a few meters. It doesn’t matter if the distance is a few kilometers or a few thousand kilometers…”
Mosaed’s Twitter account is currently suspended.
State Issues Directives to Media Regarding Coverage of the Unrest
The source who spoke to CHRI continued: “Since [the unrest began], the media division of the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry has been constantly contacting newspapers about not writing provocative headlines and staying within the framework of the state.”
CHRI has gained access to a document from the Culture Ministry’s media division, giving “recommendations” to Iran’s media managers regarding how to cover the latest protests. (The full text of the directive is reprinted at the end of this article.)
The directive states that people’s objections to higher fuel prices should be reflected within the context of a civil protest in some parts of the country “without mentioning the shape of the protests, such as people turning off their cars [to block roads], etc.…which would result in copycat actions.”
It added: “Reports about the increase in the price of gasoline should not become headline news… and in the body of the reports, there should be no suggestions about the rallies spreading and becoming violent, or any mention of slogans [against the state].”
The Culture Ministry’s media division also asks media managers to ignore “reactions by organizations and individuals who have nothing to do with the gasoline price hike” and avoid connecting protests to topics that would lead to “divisions in the country.”
In conclusion, the directive states: “Regarding concerns about the rise in the prices of other goods as a result of the fuel price increase, the public should be repeatedly informed that this is something that the government has made necessary contingencies for.”
In another government media directive accessed by CHRI, an Intelligence Ministry official named “Sheikhzadeh” gives instructions to media managers to stay within certain parameters when publishing content about the protests. It also recommends hashtag topics.
A journalist in Tehran told CHRI that this official is a liaison between the ministry and the media and communicates the directives of the Intelligence Ministry to the media.
The ministry official’s “recommendations” include mentioning “US economic terrorism,” “riots instigated by traitors and US mercenaries,” “efforts by the Western-Jewish-Arab triangle” to redirect “unrest from Iraq and Lebanon to Iran” and “hitting a dead-end as a result of the iron determination of the wise people of Iran.” (The full text of this directive is also reprinted at the end of this article.)
Reactions from Journalists to the Media Restrictions
A third journalist in Tehran told CHRI: “Our work has become very difficult because we often do not have access to the internet [partial internet access was only restored as of November 23]. We can only open the pages of [official news agencies] IRNA and ISNA. We can’t go the other sites for further information. We have been reduced to publishing our own commentaries on the current situation based on IRNA and ISNA reports within the recommended frameworks.
“There’s no room for reporting on what we see on the streets, such as the extensive presence of the security and police forces in the four corners of Revolution Square who are very careful about making sure nobody films them. There’s a big difference between what we see is happening and what we can report. The smallest thing can trigger calls from the intelligence or guidance ministries.”
The journalist continued: “We don’t have permission to write about people who have been killed, unless the officials themselves mention it in interviews, and even then it’s mostly about the deaths of Basij militiamen, not protesters. We can’t ask questions and write about the detainees, except when the officials say something. We aren’t allowed to go to the hospitals and report on injured people…
“Now the internet is being reconnected but we journalists will never be free to do our job.”
On November 22, the Journalists Guild of Tehran Province issued a statement criticizing the media “briefings” and the directives that restrict gathering and publishing of the news, saying:
“A review of the domestic media in recent days shows little interest in their content because the people have rightfully concluded that these outlets have closed their eyes to what is happening in society, They have buried the news so deep that their audiences are accusing them of censorship and hiding the truth. In addition, our online media have been so late in posting news that foreign and social media have won the information race. Moreover, limits on accessing the internet has forced some domestic media to shut down.”
The very few tweets posted by journalists inside Iran indicate the extent of the pressure being put on them.
Cartoonist Mehdi Ahmadian posted one of his drawings and wrote: “…the newspaper has decided not to publish any cartoons about the increase in the price of gasoline. So I’m sharing it here. This is what wasn’t published in Arman e Melli newspaper on November 16, 2019.”
Sazandegi newspaper reporter Yazdan Moradi tweeted, “Don’t write anything negative or it will be deleted. That was the shortest dialogue between the boss and the reporter in one of the national newspapers about the current situation with the price of gasoline…”
Mojgan Jamshidi, an environmental affairs reporter, wrote: “Don’t write anything, don’t draw anything, don’t tweet, don’t ask questions, don’t speak, don’t assemble, don’t stand, don’t sit, don’t block the road or anything else anywhere, don’t chant slogans, don’t hold banners, don’t go on strike, don’t make demands, and don’t mention any time or place. Now you can go and protest! And if you do, then you’re a rioter.”
Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reporter Maryam Vahidian commented: “Whether you’re a reporter or not, you have no idea how many have been killed in the nationwide protests. A hundred, two hundred, or more? You don’t know how many working-class families have lost their breadwinners. Or maybe the people in the streets were the unemployed from the outskirts of the city….”
Journalist Davoody Penhani tweeted: “…Take a look at today’s newspapers (November 16) and you will see the depth of the tragedy. There’s not even a single piece of criticism against the government’s decision.”
The full text of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance Media Directive follows:
“From the Media Directive: Recommendation to the print media. For your information only. Not for publication.
“1. The objections of some citizens in some parts of the country to higher fuel prices should be reported purely within the context of a civil protest without mentioning the shape of the protests, such as people turning off their cars [to block roads], etc…, which would result in copycat actions.
“2. Reports about the increase in the price of gasoline should not become headline news… and in the body of the reports. There should be no suggestions about the rallies spreading and becoming violent, or any mention of slogans [against the state].
“3. Instead of publishing urgent and frequent news, there should be one daily update based on reliable news with certain mentions of the end of rallies in every report.
“4. Re-publishing false news and trending reports from social media and other media formats should be strongly avoided. Accuracy in reporting should be given priority over speed.
“5. Do not publish reactions by organizations and individuals who have nothing to do with the gasoline price hike.
“6. Avoid connecting the people’s rallies to other topics that would create divisions in the country.
“7. Regarding concerns about the rise in the prices of other goods as a result of the fuel price increase, the public should be repeatedly informed that this is something that the government has made necessary contingencies for.”
The full text of the Ministry of Intelligence Media Guidelines follows:
“Peace be upon you and may God give you strength with glad tidings,
“Every Iranian definitely has the right to protest against some government actions and decisions but never to resort to violence and rioting. This is one of the unique characteristics of our democratic religious system.
“People, organizations and various sectors of society, especially the elite, demand that the government carries out its promises while the police, security agencies and the judiciary firmly confront the saboteurs and rioters and seek reparations from them.
“These incidents indicate an important point which is that some are only interested in getting revenge from the people of Iran even at the cost of taking their lives. This shows the hand of some opposition factions and groups based outside the country as well as the intelligence agencies of enemy governments acting against Islamic Iran.
“1. It is sufficient to point out that the enemy and opponents of the state could not tolerate the relative economic and social stability of the country in the past six months. One of the ways to counter the plots and schemes of sworn enemies is by national harmony and cohesion.
“2. Islamic Iran’s honorable people know that the self-righteous staff in Persian satellite TV stations, who pretend to be sympathetic to the people, are clearly lying because if they had any objections worth mentioning, they would have done it right here in Iran, rather than supposedly trying to regain the people’s rights from long distances. These individuals cannot be trusted because the first thing they did when they left Iran was to become slaves to foreigners who will not let them act beyond strict orders, even if they dared to do so, or they would have quit and go to another country.
“3. US economic terrorism is a consequence of the resilience of the glorious people of Islamic Iran … The increase in the price of gasoline provided an excuse for riots instigated by traitors and US mercenaries.
“4. The exalted Supreme Leader’s guidelines, along with the wisdom and loyalty of the great nation of Iran, have consistently thwarted various kinds of plots and instigations. How quickly have the satellite stations belonging to fugitives and politically bankrupt Iranians exposed their true nature.
“5. “Efforts by the Western-Jewish-Arab triangle to direct the flow of unrest from Iraq and Lebanon to Iran has been hitting a dead-end as a result of the iron determination of the wise people of Iran. The people’s political awareness, as well as their harmony with — and loyalty to — the religious state, has become a strong and impenetrable wall [against the enemies].
“6. Use these hashtags: #BravoToTheGreatAndWiseNationOfIran, #WePushedBackTheEnemy, #LoyalNation, etc.
“7. Please publish columns, articles, memes and cartoons around the subjects mentioned above.
“I thank you in advance for your hard work. Please report on the outcome.