Shooting the Messenger

Iran’s Leaders Turn on Journalists in Desperate Effort to Stop the Protests
A police motorcycle burns during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by the Islamic republic's "morality police", in Tehran, Iran September 19, 2022. WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS

Having lost control of the Iranian street and failed over several months to regain it, Iran’s increasingly desperate leaders are now firing judicial shots not just at old enemies but at new ones.

Of these newly perceived threats to the regime are journalists, particularly those whose work uncovers such state action as the killing by Iran’s morality police of a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman who was not wearing a headscarf in public. The death of Zhina Amini on 16 September might have gone unnoticed were it not for the work of two journalists who, as a result, are thought to be languishing in the notoriously harsh Evin prison.

The old perceived enemies of the Tehran regime include what it calls “the super spy services”, by which it means the CIA, Mossad, MI6, and others. Iran’s leaders claim these intelligence agencies have quietly facilitated the mass protest movement that has, since Amini’s death, shaken the ruling elite to their core. Other traditional scapegoats of Iran’s mullahs and legislators include Saudi Arabia, Kurdish separatists, and exiled Iranians living abroad. But to this list, the regime now adds everyday Iranians reporting events on the ground.

Far from dying down, things are heating up. On 8 November, 227 Iranian parliamentarians – a sizeable majority within a chamber of 290 – voted to allow the state to execute protesters. This, they said, would “serve as a hard lesson in the shortest possible time” to those demonstrating against the abuse of state power. Killing those in detention may be seen as the authorities’ own escalation, having been less-than-soft until now. To-date, almost 400 protesters have been killed in the police crackdown, with thousands injured, and an estimated 20,000 arrested.

 

A police motorcycle burns during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by the Islamic republic's "morality police", in Tehran, Iran September 19, 2022. WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS

 

“Now the public, even protesters who are not supportive of riots, demand that the judiciary and security institutions deal with the few people who have caused disturbances in a firm, deterrent, and legal manner,” said Iranian government spokesman Masoud Setayeshi, explaining the latest vote. Indeed, the first trials have already taken place. Detained protesters and journalists have been charged with “corruption on earth”, “waging war on God”, and “enmity against God”, or with being foreign agents - all punishable by death under Iranian law. 

Speaking to Majalla, Edib Khalidian from the Media Committee Journalism Desk of Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK) described the charge as ludicrous.

“Iran is a theocratic, dictatorial, totalitarian, and occupying state,” said Khalidian. “It tries to link all subjects, all issues, to religion. Anything that threatens the jurisprudential state, the religious system, the leader of the Islamic Republic, or any of its religious and governmental institutions, should be confronted. Anything that poses a threat to the regime’s survival gets labelled as a ‘hostility to God’, whether that’s national issues, human rights, women’s rights, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, or anything else that poses a threat to the system.”

According to Amnesty International, more than 60 Iranian journalists have been arrested since the start of the unrest, but the true number is likely to be much higher, since many family members of missing journalists are afraid to speak out for fear that their son or daughter may disappear forever. This does not surprise Khalidian. “At the beginning of the uprisings, journalists were priorities to be arrested in East Kurdistan. The number [of those arrested] keeps increasing.”

He shared a list of 33 journalists, together with their media outlets, whose fate is currently unknown. Two are the female journalists - Niloufar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi - whose work alerted Iranians to the killing of Amini. Hamedi took a photo of Amini while lying in hospital in a coma, while Mohammadi covered her funeral ceremony in Saqqez. Together, their reporting showed Iranians how this young woman was arrested, beaten, and killed by state police. It triggered the first wave of protests, which soon spread.

 

Protestors stand in solidarity with Iranian women after the death of Mahsa Amini, in London, Britain September 24, 2022. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne
 

 

To Iran’s leaders, journalists were now the source of ignition, the primary threat. Hamedi was arrested on 22 September. Mohammadi was arrested a week later, on 29 September. Both are accused of being “primary sources of news for foreign media”. Hamedi was accused specifically of coercing Amini’s family to release information about their daughter’s death.

According to a statement from Iran’s Intelligence Ministry and the Intelligence Organization of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the two female journalists were on a mission called “Iran’s Destruction Project.” The agencies said that “using the cover of a journalist, she [Hamedi] was one of the first people to arrive at the hospital, provoked the relatives of the deceased [Amini], and published targeted news”. Of Mohammadi, the IRGC and the Intelligence Ministry say she is a CIA agent. “She [Mohammadi] immediately attended the funeral ceremony of [Amini] in her birthplace Saqqez to provoke her relatives by circulating the news and images of the funeral ceremony and burial.”

Both the Intelligence Ministry and the IRGC blamed the CIA, Mossad, and other western intelligence agencies for being behind the protests and accused the US of spending billions of dollars to find and connect Iranians to “Western networks under the cover of human rights activities and promotion of democracy”.

The threatening statement, issued last week, has sent shockwaves across all media outlets operating in Iran. Journalists now fear further repression in the coming days. Majalla is in regular contact with journalists operating in Baluchistan and Rojhelat, the Kurdish region, who shared their fears. One contact asked to be contacted on an Iraqi number.

Hengaw Organisation for Human Rights told Majalla about Masoud Kurdpour, an experienced Kurdish journalist and former political prisoner who is the editor of the Mukrain News Agency. He is one of the many journalists who have disappearing without trace since his detention at the start of the unrest, on 20 September.

For its part, the Tehran Journalists Association (TPJA) published a statement and sent a letter to the head of the Iranian judiciary, condemning the deliberate targeting of Hamedi and Mohammadi. In it, the TPJA said the joint statement from the country's two main intelligence institutions about the analysis of recent events effectively meant “that journalism should be declared a crime and prohibited because the normal activity of two of our colleagues in performing their professional duties has been cited as an accusation that means the end of journalism”.

This followed a statement on 3 November from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), whose general-secretary Anthony Bellanger said: “We strongly condemn the unfounded accusations against our colleagues, who did nothing more than performing the most basic principles of reporting: going to the scene of the event and informing the public about what happened.” He urged the Iranian authorities to drop the accusations against Hamedi and Mohammadi and release them from detention.

 

 

People take part in a protest in front of the Iranian Embassy in support of anti-regime protests in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini, in Madrid, Spain September 28, 2022. REUTERS/Violeta Santos Moura

 

Unfortunately for journalism, the Iranian regime has not limited its threats to those operating inside Iran. The threat, as far as Iran’s leadership is concerned, is destabilising in nature and global in scope. As if to demonstrate the point, Iran’s Intelligence Minister said: “We consider [UK-based] Iran International TV a terrorist organisation and we [will] prosecute its staff members. From now on, any affiliation with Iran International TV will be regarded as engagement in terrorist activities and a threat to Iran’s national security. We will never sponsor acts of terrorism and insecurity in other countries, as Britain does, but we won’t commit ourselves to countering insecurity in these countries. Britain will way for its actions aimed at making Iran insecure.”

The threats are being taken seriously. On 7 November, Volant, the London-based media company operating the Farsi-language Iran International TV, said two of its British-Iranian journalists had received “credible death threats from the IRGC”. The Metropolitan Police in London has now warned journalists working at the channel and others that there is an imminent threat to their lives and those of their families. Last week, The Telegraph reported that an Iranian hit squad was now operating in London, targeting Iranian journalists. The report cited “a hostile surveillance team” spotted outside the homes of reporters.

On 11 November, UK officials summoned Iran’s deputy ambassador to explain the threat made towards Iranian journalists living in the UK. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly described the journalists as being “subject to immediate threats to life from Iran,” adding: “We do not tolerate threats and intimidation from foreign nations towards individuals living in the UK.”

Running alongside all this have been moves by the European Union to impose sanctions on a further 30 Iranian officials seen as being at the heart of the human rights abuses in the country, but initial plans to designate the IRGC as a terrorist entity, as mooted by Germany, are unlikely to proceed.

Meanwhile, journalists are now scared to do their job. An Iran International spokesperson said: “Our journalists are subject to abuse 24/7 on social media, but these threats to life of British-Iranian journalists working in the UK marks a significant and dangerous escalation of a state-sponsored campaign to intimidate Iranian journalists working abroad.”

They added: “These lethal threats to British citizens on British soil come after several weeks of warnings from the IRGC and Iranian government about the work of a free and uncensored Farsi-language media working in London. Britain is the home of free speech. Iran International stands as part of that tradition, proud to serve the 85 million people of Iran with independent, uncensored information.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran, and specifically the IRGC cannot be allowed to export their pernicious media crackdown to the UK. The IRGC cannot be allowed to act abroad with impunity. We hope that the UK Government, international governments, and other organisations will join us in condemning these horrific threats and continue to highlight the importance of media freedom. We would like to thank the Metropolitan Police for their considerable efforts in keeping journalists safe.”

 

 

Iran's riot police forces stand in a street in Tehran, Iran October 3, 2022. WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS

 

Iran has long accused the UK of harbouring critical Iranian journalists for the purpose of airing propaganda and lies about the regime. Early targets of intimation were journalists at the BBC’s Persian Service. Now those at Iran International TV, Manoto Channel, and Voice of America have been added to the list.

Due to the censorship imposed on local Iranian media, Iranians rely on satellite channels for unfiltered news. Knowing this, the regime regularly triggers internet shutdowns. According to a report published by Tansim Media, an Iranian regime mouthpiece, “Iran sent the message because Iran knows the satellite news channel Iran International is funded by Saudi Arabia”.

Since the start of the unrest, Iran has threatened Saudi Arabia several times, suggesting not only physical attacks against Saudi targets, possibly by one of Iran’s many proxies such as the Yemen-based Houthis or militias in Iraq, but non-physical retribution, such as by stirring up anti-Saudi feeling domestically, or by using media outlets to air inflammatory and propaganda reports against the Kingdom.

This comes days after a video was released that showed a threatened attack by Iran’s Shahed-136 kamikaze drones on the Shaybah energy complex in Saudi Arabia. These are the same drones that Russia is currently using in Ukraine.

The IRGC head, Major-General Hossein Salami, said Iran had warned the Saudi government that media backed by the Kingdom is “provoking our youth with propaganda,” adding: “Be careful of your behaviour and control these media, otherwise, the smoke will be in your eyes. We will finish with you. You entered our internal affairs through these media but know that you are vulnerable.”

The inflammatory rhetoric, the threats to those at home and abroad, the bombing of Kurdish areas in Iraq, and the Tehran parliamentary vote to mete out death to protesters, all suggests that the Iranian authorities are increasingly concerned and increasingly desperate. Bizarre charges (such as ‘corrupting the earth’ and ‘waging war on God’) that are now being made against journalists who are just doing their job should be seen as part of the same pattern.

The panic comes from the remarkable strength and longevity shown by protesters, who are now entering their third month, and who have withstood every tactic in the Iranian police’s repression playbook. Their worry is justified. When the powerful head of the IRGC warns protesters “not to come to the streets” and is ignored, they have a major problem.

In a previous interview with Majalla, PAK spokesman Khalil Kani Sanani said: “Because everything they have done to suppress the voice of the uprising people has not succeeded, yes, the demonstrations continue and so too do the regime’s systematic crimes.” This begs the question: what comes next?


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