Amid Epochal Uprising, Journalism Under Attack In Iran

(MENAFN- Asia Times)

The nationwide uprising that ensued after the death of 22-year-old Iranian woman mahsa amini in the custody of the morality police in September added a new dimension to the global media coverage of Iran and dislodged the exclusive focus previously set on the country's nuclear program and the stalled negotiations to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Now, the media are spotlighting the heroism of the Iranian women braving an overwhelming crackdown to reclaim their dispossessed rights, as well as the often-untold stories of ordinary citizens who are these days the protagonists of an epoch-making, dramatic struggle for freedom.

These stories are being relayed to an international audience mostly courtesy of local reporters as well as citizen journalists who have been lifting the veil on various aspects of the sociopolitical crisis plunging the country deep into turmoil over the past couple of months, the government's iron-fist policy brutalizing the protesters, and women's clarion call for equality and the reversal of the unpopular compulsory-hijab laws.

Even in the middle of a paralyzing Internet blackout that has already cost the national economy upwards of US$24 billion in losses, Iranian reporters have done a remarkable job giving coverage to the evolution of the protest movement, the violence unleashed by the government to suppress the upheaval, and the emergence of a new social reality in the country.

This is a new status quo many Iranians argue will hardly ever relegate to the day when Mahsa Amini was arrested and reportedly beaten to death, one of countless women who were still on the fringes and at the mercy of rigid patriarchal frameworks that are now being rapidly hollowed.

Without the local reporters working in tandem with the citizen journalists to get the story out, the awareness that has been raised worldwide about this revolutionary wave and the momentum that has been solidified around the noble motto of“woman, life, freedom” wouldn't have come into being, and the outpouring of solidarity with Iranian women's cause couldn't have been streamlined.

It is common knowledge that journalists in Iran operate in a highly toxic climate characterized by legal provisions that officially curtail their ability to report freely, complemented by the arbitrariness and myopia prevailing in the day-to-day decisions of the government bureaucrats that handicap investigative reporting.

The Reporters Without Borders' 2022 Press Freedom index offers a sketch of a situation that is all but menacing. Of 180 countries surveyed, Iran's ranking is 178, only ahead of Eritrea and North Korea – even Syria, Yemen and Myanmar fare better than the Islamic Republic.

Yet it is in this inhospitable setting for journalism that educated and talented reporters are pushing the boundaries, navigating an ocean of restrictions to make sure their commitment to public cognizance isn't sacrificed while a modicum of accountability can be expected from the otherwise irresponsible officials who scarcely feel obligated to explain their decisions to constituents.

Unfairly underrated

It is not always realistic to expect the local media fully to live up to their mandate and publish whatever the general public demands to be in the headlines.

This is why they are facing an increasing backlash and their overall reception is declining in an asymmetrical competition with exiled broadcasters outfitted with the luxury of technical and professional possibilities that are only a figment of imagination within Iran's borders, not least the freedom to operate under a democratic government.

It is, however, not only unfair but misleading to our understanding of the country to underrate the role the Iranian journalists are playing at home to report the developments and frame a real-life portrayal drawing on which the bulk of the global media and think-tank narratives around the country is conceived.

It was, for example, the audacious reporting of niloofar hamedi of the pro-reform Shargh Daily that exposed the details of Mahsa Amini's death and generated the fury that spun out of control within days and spurred a viral national movement rested on redemption for women and wider civil liberties. Hamedi was arrested shortly after the publication of the report and has had limited communication with her family from the prison ever since.

Niloofar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi, another female reporter whose coverage of Amini's mysterious death generated massive interest, are facing serious accusations by Iran's intelligence apparatus, and the government may decide to hand down hefty sentences to them, which is why international organizations are concerned about their safety.

Indeed, there are radical voices of Iranian opposition in exile that despise the home-grown reform movement because its proponents are construed to be too lenient and soft-spoken in critiquing the government.

But this movement, notwithstanding how disparate factions wish to judge it, has been a seminal agent of change in modern times, in fact representing the intellectual provenance of many of those who are presently the diehard regime change advocates in Berlin, London, New York and Toronto.

And the sincere proponents of reform, including pro-reform journalists, have paid a dear price for their defiance of what is permitted under the narrow rubric of Iranian law.

The Committee to Protect Journalists' latest rundown of journalists arrested by the government while covering the protests includes 63 names, 15 of whom have been either freed or released on bail. This marks one of the most extensive crackdowns against journalists in a short span seen lately anywhere and will likely project Iran to become the worst jailer of journalists in the world. That dishonor is currently afforded to China.

Apart from Iran's traditional rivals, the United Nations has also voiced concern over the Iranian government's indiscriminate targeting of journalists and what appears to be a spiraling campaign of arrests and intimidation of media practitioners who are doing their job in a critical juncture when accurate information and news are needed more direly than ever.

In a statement, the president of the United Nations General Assembly, csaba kőrösi , said“all governments, including the Islamic Republic of Iran, are invited to cooperate with the UN system, including through the UN country teams, to implement the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.”

“Less than a year ago, the General Assembly indicated that it was deeply concerned by all human-rights violations and abuses committed against journalists and media workers. This is spelled out in Resolution 76/173,” he said.

“If you look at the wording, member states are urged to do their utmost to prevent violence, threats and attacks targeting journalists and media workers, and to ensure accountability, among other topics,” he added.

Journalism in Iran is now a liability, and attacks are not only coming from the government instructing that its motley collection of prohibitions on reporting should be observed, otherwise newsroom closures and prison terms will be inevitable.

External observers in the community of Iranian diaspora are also accusing the finite crew of independent journalists of not doing enough, being too conservative and too reticent in reporting on what's happening.

These onslaughts don't change the reality that Iran has conventionally been a fertile ground for the development of distinguished journalists who have come of age in this insular setting and embarked on leading careers internationally after learning how to extend the limits under hostile circumstances.

It will be a fallacious reading of the events unfolding in Iran if they are understood without acknowledging the pivotal role of local reporters in opening the eyes of the world to the Middle East's first women-led insurrection, if not revolution.

Kourosh Ziabari is an Iranian journalist. A Chevening Scholarships alumnus, he has reported on grants by the Council of Europe, UNESCO and Deutsche Welle. He is a 2021 Dag Hammarskjold Fund for Journalists fellow and a 2022 World Press Institute fellow. In 2015, he reported from the United States, Malaysia and Pakistan on a Senior Journalists Seminar fellowship by the East-West Center. Follow him on Twitter @KZiabari.


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