February 20, 2020

“Knock Knock! Hello Free World! … Can you hear us?” These words are part of a tweet by Iranian freelance journalist Mohammad Mosaed that got him arrested Nov. 22 in Iran. 

To publish this tweet, he used 42 different proxy servers to access the internet during a nationwide shutdown imposed by the Iranian state. The internet shutdown was a reaction to protests that had erupted Nov. 15 in over 100 cities, following an increase in gas prices. These words illustrate a helpless sentiment many Iranians felt at the time of the protests — a feeling of being alienated from the rest of world, not seen and not heard by the international press. 

With the spiraling of events since the assassination of Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani by the U.S. military Jan. 3, Iran has been all over the news.  The fast-paced and changing scene in Iran provides interesting lessons for the news industry. Foreign journalists and analysts are trying to attach meaning to events that are unfolding, while news consumers struggle to understand the regions, culture and current events.

Can quality journalism survive in this environment? As someone who has been leading a Persian-language media organization in exile for Iran, I argue for diversifying newsrooms and building stronger bridges between credible, independent diaspora media and journalists and the established Western press.


Diaspora and exiled media: much-needed networks

A nationwide, weeklong, total internet shutdown executed by the Iranian government in November was a gross violation of citizens’ rights to access information and to freedom of expression. It was also an attempt to obstruct communications and prevent images and videos from reaching the outside world. 

Such government overreach makes it increasingly difficult for the Western press to report on what is happening inside a country that is already extremely difficult to access for foreign journalists. 

A few foreign correspondents live and work inside Iran, but it’s tough. Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian spent nearly 1.5 years in Iranian prison. Dutch correspondent Thomas Erdbrink, who had been reporting from Iran for 17 years, has not been granted a new press accreditation in over a year, which obstructs his ability to work.

If the international coverage of Iran shows us anything, it’s that Western media benefits from collaborating with Iranian exiled and diaspora media. These are local (in this case Persian) independent media organizations operating from outside the country. They are well-established, with large networks of journalists with the same ethical journalism standards as in Western countries. They are aware of the security situation and mitigation strategies, have no language limitations and have a native understanding of both the context of Iran’s civil society and Iranian politics.

After almost 10 years of working for an independent Iranian media organization, operating from The Netherlands — including five years in a director role — I have witnessed the challenges of reporting intimately on a country that knows no press freedom, by journalists who are forced to live and work in exile. 

During my time there, we reported on the Green Movement, the nuclear deal, sanctions and all of the geopolitical tensions. But mostly, there was a lot of reporting on Iran’s domestic events — on civil society and human rights-related themes and in-depth analysis. There was also harassment and targeted attacks against our operation by the Iranian state. 

I was often contacted by Dutch press during big events related to Iran. Dutch editors often asked me if I knew anyone Iranian who could briefly comment on the news from their own personal perspective — not from their professional experience as journalists covering that same event. While I was able to provide some commentary for Dutch news, the items were predominantly led by their foreign desk correspondents.

A telling example of successful reporting through diaspora media: BBC Persian and The New York Times were able to report on the mass killing of protesters in the southwestern Iranian city of Mahshahr in early December. 

That area hosts a large ethnic Arab population, a minority group in Iran that faces much discrimination. When reporting on the casualties following the protests, the Associated Press reported from Iranian state TV, which had falsely claimed an hours-long armed struggle with rioters, which security forces had to end with armed force for the sake of national security. In reality, witnesses told media that armed guards killed several protesters who had blocked a road, shooting them point blank without any warning. After, the guards encircled the remaining protesters who had run into a marsh and killed as many as 100 with machine gun fire.

The guards took the dead bodies with them, only to return them to their families five days later after the families had signed paperwork that they would not hold funerals or give interviews to the media. 

This story circled online in diaspora media and among local journalists before The New York Times could fact-check with its own sources and break the story internationally. This was possible because the Times works with an Iranian journalist, Farnaz Fassihi, who comes from and is an expert on Iran — she speaks and reads Persian and has contacts in the country. Without these networks and linkages, the story might have gone unnoticed in the international community. 

The role of diaspora media in reporting on Iran was significant in both the November protests and over the past month. In the case of the Ukrainian Airlines plane crash, flight PS752, a New York Times investigation revealed how events unfolded in the three days after the crash and how senior officials attempted to cover up their own actions in the downing of the plane. 

In addition to the role of the U.S. and Canada, which had been invited by Iran to investigate the crash site, part of the pressure that led to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s armed forces admitting fault was the influence of public opinion, which in part is shaped by independent diaspora media. According to the Times, “Persian-language satellite channels operating from abroad, the main source of news for most Iranians, broadcast blanket coverage of the crash, including reports from Western governments that Iran had shot down the plane.”

Journalist Fassihi recently spoke on a panel, saying of the cover-up investigation, “I think for reporters working from afar the only way that that can be done is if you’ve actually worked in Iran, if you have many years of following this story, if you speak Farsi and if you build up sources.” 

The other Iranian-American journalists on the panel, including The Washington Post’s Rezaian, emphasized the importance of understanding the language and having deep contextual knowledge to fight disinformation.

Another example of Iran’s media coverage is the video of the Ukrainian airplane being hit by an Iranian missile above Tehran. An Iranian internet freedom expert active within Persian diaspora media shared the video on a local Telegram channel (a messaging app popular among Iranians). Christiaan Triebert, a former Bellingcat investigator who now works  for The New York Times, spotted it. 

After the initial release of the video, the Times investigative team was able to verify and publish the video and its findings — that the plane was most likely hit by an Iranian missile. The person who initially shared it, Nariman Gharib, wrote on Twitter, “ (the) 00.19 seconds video from my anonymous source in Iran has CHANGED everything. In one side we had Iran’s Propaganda Machine in other side researchers, investigation teams from around the world.” 

Triebert expressed thanks to Iranians for sharing images online and with reporters in several tweets, and mentioned that having a Persian speaker on the team has “enriched the analysis and widened our coverage of the PS752 incident.” 

We can’t all be the New York Times … or can we?

Other newsrooms are not The New York Times and do not have its capacity or resources. 

Most editorial teams are still terribly homogeneous, resulting in limited multilingual staff and expert knowledge. They struggle to find experts with the right language skills and a deep understanding of regions and cultural context, especially when an outsourced in-country correspondent is not an option, as is the case with Iran. 

A list of the most frequently asked guests asked to comment on the Iran-U.S. tension on American cable news networks shows how grave the situation is. Out of 32 of the most frequently asked guests (top 10 with most appearances per network), there were zero Iranians or Iranian-Americans included. 

Diaspora communities can play an important role in closing an information gap. Collaboration for content, fact-checking and knowledge exchange would serve audiences, help fight disinformation and empower journalists. Technology is increasingly important for the future of journalism in closed states like Iran, but so are human connections.

Many independent media organizations that conduct journalism for countries with very little press freedom or countries in conflict are forced to operate from abroad. They struggle with funding models and rely on development aid, with high costs to maintain their networks and security. 

The Western press is having a hard time attracting a diverse pool of journalists and accessing these countries. By establishing an exchange, for instance, with Western media buying content, consultancy and translation services from exiled media, some of the negative effects of the homogeneity of newsrooms can be mitigated and issues with access and language barriers solved. Simultaneously it can help these much needed exiled media groups solve sustainability challenges and build capacity. 

There are many more countries where protests, conflict, human rights violations and suppression of freedom of expression happen on a large scale, with similar challenges to reporting. To learn from the media experience regarding the events in Iran, it would be beneficial if both Western and diaspora/exiled media organizations are open to building connections, expanding trusted networks and building connections for the future. 

This is necessary to tell the stories of those who are silenced in a better, more accurate and more timely manner during moments of unrest, many more of which are surely yet to come.

Rieneke Van Santen is a media consultant and the former director of Zamaneh Media, a Persian independent media for Iran that operates from Amsterdam, The Netherlands. She is based in The Netherlands and can be reached at rieneke@dendezo.com.

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