Iran is holding a presidential election on Friday. And in Iran, elections have consequences.
In 1997, a presidential election ushered in Mohammad Khatemi and an era of reform. Eight years later, 2005 saw the rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the return of conservatives.
In 2009, the Iranian government granted visas to many foreign journalists to cover the presidential campaign. Then, on June 13, the day after the election, the government announced that President Ahmadinejad had been reelected in a landslide. The leading opposition candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, raised allegations of fraud. Huge demonstrations began, as did a government clampdown on both the political opposition and the media.
“The city turned into this apocalyptic mess,” recalled Borzou Daragahi, who now writes for the Financial Times and had covered that election for the Los Angeles Times. “It went from being a very pleasant, upbeat, carnival-like atmosphere to a very scary place to work.” Two and a half weeks later, with the post-election uprising in full swing, a conservative newspaper published an article accusing reporters with dual citizenship of links with Western intelligence services, threatening them with arrest. Daragahi and several other dual-nation reporters left the country immediately.
Since then, Iran has granted few visas and press credentials for American news organizations. The barriers to access, along with a frequent editorial emphasis on Iran’s nuclear program, means that coverage of Iran’s complex and tumultuous politics has suffered. This relative dearth of close coverage makes it easier for those of us on the outside to reduce the deeply complex, constantly shifting crosscurrents of Iranian politics to a simple contest between “hardliners” and “reformers,” secularists and Islamists. With this week’s election, journalists inside and outside the country could have an opportunity to address the relative lack of reporting on Iran’s politics and society.
Farnaz Fassihi, a senior staff writer for The Wall Street Journal and a dual Iranian-American citizen, was another journalist who left the country following threats in 2009. The Iranian government has refused since to grant her a press credential. As a reporter covering the Middle East, she still writes about Iran, but from Beirut.
“We keep trying to go in, and we’ve kept trying to have a stringer there, but our application keeps getting rejected,” Fassihi said of the Journal’s attempts to restore its operation inside Iran. “It’s not for a lack of not wanting to be on the ground,” she said.
The Journal also applied for a visa for a reporter to cover the upcoming election, but with the voting just a week away, the paper had not received a response from Iranian authorities, Fassihi said. Unless the paper is able to get a reporter into the country, she plans to cover the election from Beirut, through sources and contacts inside the country.
But access is not the only issue preventing robust coverage of Iranian politics and society. Experts and many journalists who have covered the country argue that news organizations stress diplomatic and security-related stories at the expense of coverage of Iranian politics and society, human rights violations, and the street-level effects of international sanctions.
“There is a tendency in the United States to focus mostly on the Iranian nuclear program, and not Iran as a country or people.” said Alireza Nader, a Senior International Policy Analyst at the RAND Corporation. “This is somewhat understandable given the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran,” he added. “But the major societal and political transformations in Iran do not get much attention.”
The Wall Street Journal’s Fassihi observed that this focus is not unique to Iran. “Wherever you have an American foreign policy or military interest, the Washington story will take precedence over the people story,” she said.
But with such extreme barriers to access, the Financial Times’s Daragahi said that any criticism of narrowly-focused Iran coverage amounted to “blaming the victims.” He said, “I’m sure if they allowed it NBC would have a bureau doing live shots from Tehran all the time, covering the country, but they won’t allow it.”
Tight controls on media inside the country mean that Reporters on the outside can write more freely, and those based in Iran are forced to play by the governments’ rules. Journalists who covered the 2012 parliamentary election were required to stay in the same hotel, monitored constantly, and were bussed from place to place by government officials, an experience journalist Laura Secor expertly recounted in The New Yorker.
“Access doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re getting the complete truth these days in Iran,” Fassihi said. “Just because you are based in Iran right now or that a foreign organization has a reporter in Iran doesn’t mean that the story they’re getting is necessarily more truthful than an outsider reporting because of the self-censorship and the intimidation and the restrictions and pressure.”
Either way, it is clear that this week, the regime in Tehran is not risking the 2009 scenario, in which reporters from around the globe witnessed the opening days of the uprising and the crackdown as it unfolded. Last week Iran’s culture and Islamic guidance minister, Mohammad Hosseini, said the government would “closely examine” the 200 visa applications from foreign journalists in order to keep out “Zionist spies,” as quoted by Reporters Without Borders.
“This year has been different,” said Kelly Niknejad, the founder of Tehran Bureau, a website dedicated to deep coverage of Iran currently hosted by The Guardian. “Very few foreign reporters have gotten in,” she said. Those who have received only seven-day visas (down from 10), that expire at midnight on June 15, the day after the election.
The government has also continued to stifle critical news reporting by domestic media. At least 40 journalists are currently in prison in Iran, the second highest total in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
A few American organizations do have journalists based in Tehran, many of them engaged in thoughtful, nuanced reporting. Among them are the Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian and the Los Angeles Times’s Ramin Mostaghim.
Perhaps the most visible of those still inside the country is The New York Times’s Thomas Erdbrink, a Dutch citizen and longtime resident of Iran, who declined to be interviewed for this article. The Times’s foreign desk directed inquiries to the paper’s Director of Communications, Danielle Rhoades-Ha, who sent an email saying, “As a matter of general policy we do not discuss staffing/personnel matters or the process of reporting and editing.” She also characterized the paper’s coverage of Iran as”incredibly comprehensive” including reporting “on matters of Iranian politics, national security and domestic issues.”