By Hanif Jazayeri
Iran’s Fake News operations have just suffered a major setback. Last Wednesday, a court in Germany issued an emergency ruling, stating that an article published last month in the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung contained a litany of false allegations demonizing the largest democratic opposition group to the mullahs. It ordered the editors to delete the false charges or face a fine and prison time.
The ruling marks the second time in two years that German courts have ordered European publications to delete bogus charges against members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), also known as the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK), who reside in a camp in Albania. On March 21, 2019, a court in Hamburg ruled that Der Spiegel had acted illegally in publishing false allegations of “torture” and “terrorist training” by the MEK in Albania.
In both cases, the courts found that the news organizations had not observed the principles of permissible reporting.
Within 24 hours, FAZ deleted its passages that quoted unnamed MEK ‘ex-members’ as saying the group tortures its own members and that it has barred access to the outside world. The courts rejected both claims as false. In fact, dozens of international news organizations and hundreds of international lawmakers and political personalities, including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former US Presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, and former Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, have taken part in major ‘Free Iran’ events hosted at the MEK’s camp, Ashraf 3, in Albania.
The fake news stories by FAZ and Spiegel are part of a much larger Iranian misinformation campaign targeting the Western free press which for years has gone unnoticed.
In recent years, Iran’s regime has gone to lengths to gradually gain a foothold in the Western media, and it is now using its assets, under the guise of journalists in reputable news outlets, to undermine international sanctions, portray Tehran as a victim of a possible US war, and demonize the mullahs’ opponents as the regime faces mounting pro-democracy protests at home.
For several years now a number of ‘journalists’ of Iranian origin who previously worked for Iran’s state-run press have quietly joined the staff of some international media organizations that include Al-Jazeera English, Britain’s Channel 4 News, MSNBC, The Guardian, and The Independent.
As part of this cultivation effort, in recent years the regime has allowed certain international news groups to have a ‘controlled’ media presence in Iran. Most foreign journalists require local assistants and translators with a valid permit from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. These assistants, who also work for local state media, are often linked to the Intelligence Ministry. They help the foreign news teams produce reports and set up interviews with officials who normally refrain from speaking with the foreign press. Once the relationship develops, some assistants are recruited permanently by the news organizations and sent abroad to work as their news staff, at which point they gradually propagate Tehran’s talking points in their new newsrooms.
Take for example Saeed Kamali Dehghan who for years was The Guardian’s Iran correspondent. He often publishes pieces that vilify the MEK and undermine the Trump Administration’s sanctions policy on the regime. In fact, prior to joining Britain’s Guardian, he used to work for the Fars News Agency, operated by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). For the record, here’s the link to his old press card.
The Guardian’s other pro-regime ‘journalist’ is Arron Reza Merat who once wrote a 6,600-word hit-piece on the MEK. Merat was previously a Tehran-based correspondent who promoted tourism in Iran and heaped praise on the regime’s President Hassan Rouhani.
Then there’s Will Yong, an Al-Jazeera English journalist who in 2018 produced and hosted a program attacking MEK members living in Albania. Yong, who is half Iranian, was previously an anchorman for Iran’s English-language state-television channel Press TV.
These and other pro-regime journalists, such as The Independent’s Negar Mortazavi (who likes taking selfies with the mullahs’ Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif) and Borzou Daragahi (who writes pieces on how to stop Donald Trump’s reelection despite holding the title of International Correspondent), are misusing their position within Western media outlets to shift blame on everyone but the mullahs for the Iranian people’s suffering.
As part of the misguided effort to appease the mullahs, for years the EU and US have ignored Iran’s intrusions into their independent media at their own peril.
Reading this piece, some Western journalists may be naturally inclined to ‘protect their own’, but the point here is exactly that these pro-Iran writers and producers are not ordinary journalists; they are apologists for a regime that censors the free press and imprisons those journalists who dare report on the nationwide protests for regime change. As the world seeks to root out Fake News, defending the free press should include exposing Iran’s misinformation campaign.
Hanif Jazayeri is a London-based news editor and Iranian opposition activist. Twitter: @HanifJazayeri
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