President Hassan Rouhani has responded to criticisms from the press and defended his record, leading to a backlash from media pundits and journalists.
Speaking at a ceremony to break the Ramadan fast on June 13 to which he invited publishers, editors and reporters, the president said that although Iran was beset by many problems, the major problem the country faced was not economic but “psychological warfare.”
One reporter who attended the event spoke to IranWire about the frustration journalists felt after hearing the president’s comments, especially since so many of them had worked hard to report on what was going on in the country at the moment. “Journalists talked about the difficulties people are facing in making a living, about the atmosphere of hopelessness and about the difficult situation of the media. The president’s answer to all these was ‘psychological warfare’. Most journalists were not happy with the president’s statements.”
Reformist journalist Abbas Abdi also talked about despair among the Iranian people, citing statistics. He said the majority of Iranians have no hope that things will get any better.
Bijan Moghadam, managing editor and editor in chief of the website Alef, also used the word despair when describing the mood among Iranians today.
Marjan Tohidi, a journalist with the reformist newspaper Shargh, also responded to Rouhani’s comments on Twitter, saying that when journalists “voiced criticisms and said that people were tired and in despair,” they could not have expected Rouhani’s response. “Hassan Rouhani…pointed the finger at journalists and said: ‘it is you who have raised people’s expectations.’ Neither I nor anybody else in that gathering thought that when we left we would be at fault.”
“Mr. Rouhani!,” wrote Mehdi Rahmanian, managing editor of Shargh, “You have been president for five years, but not even once have you got together with the heads of the media to listen to what they have to say — which are the same things that people want to say.”
The Battle Over Foreign Media
Veteran journalist Ozra Farhani pointed out the security measures authorities regularly take against journalists, and about the regular arrest and imprisonment of her colleagues, as well as the many court verdicts against them, including bans on their work.“Mr. Rouhani!” she said. “When they tell a journalist that he cannot work it means he [is forced] to go and die.”
Rouhani went on to criticize the influence of foreign media. “The biggest grief for a nation is when foreign media is its reference,” he said. “I have not seen many places where a nation trusts outside media so much. The public should use domestic media as its source of information and not some unknown media, which say whatever pleases them in cyberspace and deceive the people through … slander.”
One journalist who attended the ceremony responded to this. “Why do people trust foreign media? Because the foreign media do not face a thousand kinds of censorship and red lines,” he told IranWire. “Because they do not have to report made-to-order news, because they do not have to publish reports that various state organs force them to publish, and they do not have to feed people lies as some rightwing media and the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting do. We would be happy if people had more trust in domestic media where we work, but when we have a thousand red lines for covering rape, sex education, political discussions and so on and so forth, we commit self-censorship. We have to deal with very harsh censorship. So the people are right to trust foreign media.”
But Rouhani’s statements about the international media are nothing new. Iranian officials and politicians have repeatedly expressed concerns over the way foreign media cover Iran. According to Prague-based Persian-language broadcasters Radio Farda,“Research funded by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe, shows that VOA Persian and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Radio Farda each enjoyed a weekly audience of close to ten million (about 16 percent of the population aged 15 years and older) in Iran in 2017. Based on estimates by the BBC, the weekly audience for its Persian language service is around 13 million.”
The Radio Farda report also examines the impact of social media: “In addition to independent foreign media outlets, there are also many popular websites and social media accounts run by Iranians living abroad, particularly former journalists and political activists. Some of these sites and accounts publish news and reports that are critical of the Iranian regime, and have millions of viewers every month.”
“They Want Us to Lie”
“They expect us to write things that are not true,” another journalist who attended the event told IranWire. “It is not enough that they censor and constrain the media. They want us to lie and disregard people’s right to expect a better life. They do not want us to report the people’s voice.”
Journalist Amir Ebtehaj was also angry. He said the president “pointed a finger at the media and said: ’you must not raise people’s expectations and make them lose hope,’” he tweeted. “I wish somebody would tell the president that it was his campaign promises that raised expectations and that it was his government’s repeated indifference to people demands that made them lose hope.”
Non-journalists also went on to social media to criticize Rouhani, particularly on the matter of people’s expectations and his comment that the “economy is not the major problem.”
But Farzaneh Aeini, another journalist with Shargh, had a more positive view of President Rouhani’s statements. “Tonight Rouhani…had many complaints about psychological warfare and made-up news,” she tweeted. “His tone was serious and decisive, especially when he reiterated that the ballot box is the key to solving problems.”
The administrator of a pro-Rouhani Telegram channel — one of several to be arrested in 2017 — was surprised to be excluded from the event. “I asked Mr. Esmaili [the vice president for communication at Rouhani’s office] why the admins of pro-government Telegram channels were not invited to the ceremony to break fast,” wrote Saeed Naghdi. “He replied that Telegram channel admins are not invited because Telegram has been filtered.” Naghdi then pointed out that some Telegram activists had been invited to the event. Discussion about that, he said, “should be interesting to pro-government activists in cyberspace.”
Invisible Red Lines
Iranian media and journalists face many difficulties, including a multitude of red lines — topics that are off-limits for discussion — some of which are effectively invisible until crossed. They face censorship and are regularly forced to self-censor, lack job security and endure intimidation from security agencies. Nevertheless, authorities and politicians continuously criticize them for reporting on and writing about the everyday problems of ordinary Iranian people.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is one of those critics. Every year, he issues advice to the media, words designed to justify the actions of some state institutions, so that if one day a media outlet or a journalist dares to defy his advice, action can be taken against them. His directives include refraining from shedding negative light on the authorities, publishing positive news and “principled” criticism. “Slandering” the regime, he once said, “is a bigger sin than slandering individuals.”
This guideline is a good example of how the Islamic Republic wants the media to behave. Journalists who report on people’s problems have been repeatedly accused of “blackwashing” and continue to be punished by the regime.