11 March 2010

A Reply to the Editors of Six Iranian News Websites

A joint letter from the editors of six Iranian news websites came into the office the other day. It raised several critical questions about the way international news organizations have covered recent events in Iran. It specifically charged that western news reporters and reports are not “honest and professional.”

Why? Well, the editors note a case in which western media picked up an Iranian blog report on the death of a young Iranian woman, who was allegedly sexually abused while in custody after protesting the 2009 election. The editors’ complaint: “Do you think it is professional to spread such far-reaching news through an unknown blog?”

Then they cite the case of Neda Agha Soltan. The Iranian website editors voice suspicions about a young doctor seen in videos of her death. They ask: “Why did he travel to Iran five days before Neda's death from UK [Britain] and a day after the event he leave Iran to UK” where he was interviewed by the BBC. Iranian media have suggested the doctor was the killer, not security forces. Again the editors question the professionalism of western journalists for failing to look into alternative explanations for the young woman’s death.

The letter goes on to accuse BBC Persian and the Voice of America of allegedly encouraging anti-government protesters in Iran – a frequent complaint of Iranian officials. It specifically complains about VOA interviewing an Iranian terrorist, now in custody in Iran, who the editors claim was treated as a hero.

Now here is where the letter gets interesting. The Iranian web journalists say they wrote their letter “to defend the current realities in Iran, not [President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad; you must note that most of us are among the critics of Mr.Ahmadinejad’s government.” They call on western news organizations to re-evaluate whether they have “been fair and impartial or not” in covering Iran.

It is signed by the editors of:

- Alef
- Farda
- HamshahriOnline
- Jahan
- KhabarOnline
- Tabnak

What’s interesting is that none of these organizations have been shut down by Iranian authorities, while several other media outlets inside Iran have been closed and some journalists arrested.

And this raises the question: are these editors trying to do the government’s work in a professional media guise? One could easily imagine a government official summoning the editors to a meeting and “suggesting” it would be in their interest to issue such an open letter to western media.

Because the facts simply don’t support their arguments or their contentions.

So let us throw back some questions at our Iranian editors:

1. Are Iran’s domestic media free and able to report objectively, accurately and comprehensively on the country’s affairs?
2. Are western journalists allowed unrestricted access into Iran and freedom of movement after their arrival?
3. Do Iranian authorities allow citizens to cooperate with foreign media –including providing western news outlets with news and pictures?

Of course, we know the answers are, in order, no, no and no. We would suggest the Iranian editors who wrote the open letter ought to get their own internal information house in order first before presuming to counsel their counterparts in the west.

We don’t minimize the difficulties any responsible journalist in Iran faces today in trying to survive professionally. But all journalists should ask themselves how far can they go and still preserve their self-respect. We note for the record many Iranian journalists have elected to leave their own country. We commend them for the sacrifices they have made to remain true to their principles.

Eds Note: a Farsi-version of this commentary is available on the web here.

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