Is there a double standard in how foreign-funded Persian media covers the opposition?

Thousands turn out in Melbourne to stand in solidarity with protests that have broken out in Iran following the death of 22-year old Mahsa (also known as Jina or Zhina) Amini at the hands of the country’s brutal dictatorship and its ‘morality’ police, September 24, 2022. Photo by Matt Hrkac via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

Iranian authorities have arrested 79 journalists in a harsh crackdown since Mahsa/Zina Amini’s death in September 2022. This wave of arrests is just another event in a continuous repressive and censorship policy against media since 1979. 

For decades, because of censorship and the harsh repression of journalists in Iran, millions of Iranians have turned to Persian-language media outlets operating outside of Iran and social/citizen media to get their information, from the violation of human rights to the protest movement. These media outlets also invite commentators and experts to challenge the official discourse on various topics.

In the meantime, many Iranians, including journalists, criticize these Persian language media for having double standards for the coverage of opposition activities and personalities, especially during the last 12 months. 

In other words, these media outlets are roaring “tigers” against the Iranian state, but when it comes to the opposition, they become silent “Persian cats.” Almost all these media outlets are financed directly and indirectly by foreign money, from liberal democracies — such as the USA, the UK, and Germany, which financed among others VOA, Radio Farda, BBC, and DW — to the authoritarian Saudi State.

Global Voices invited four experts to share their opinions on this topic, by asking them if there is a double standard in how the foreign-funded big Persian media cover the Iranian opposition, such as by neither criticizing them nor demanding transparency. 

The monstrous nature of the Islamic Republic

Chahla Chafiq, sociologist and writer of “Femmes sous le voile” (Women under the hijab), holds the insignia of Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur.  She says:

From a general perspective, the analysis and criticism of the speech and actions of the opposition have never had a significant place in the popular media to which you refer. Yet in identifying the reason for these conditions, it is necessary to consider several points.

First, shortcomings exist in the culture of criticism among the majority of us, leaving generally no place to look at oneself. The problem is that we mainly think that criticizing ourselves means losing to our opponent. We forget that ignoring the shortcomings and mistakes in our speech and actions can lead to their reproduction. Therefore, the losses are on us.

Second, as the Islamic Republic’s only reaction to any right-seeking is repression, logic naturally suggests that criticizing the opposition ends up benefiting the oppressors. According to such logic, it is better to avoid such criticism.

Finally, most of us think of criticism as a synonym for hostility. This common idea naturally makes criticizing the opposition a troublesome task. In other words, the lack of critical dialogue with the opposition makes the work of the media more difficult in this field.

Killing the independent media, a cultural ruin

Reza Moini, journalist and former head of the Iran/Afghanistan desk of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), also emphasizes the impact of censorship and harsh repression in the last four decades on the journalists and even, in many cases, their approach to the profession.

Moini explains:

One side of the suppression of media freedom in authoritarian governments is arrest and imprisonment, as well as censorship of journalists.

The other side is preventing the emergence and growth of independent media. Killing the independent media is a cultural ruin stemming from decades of no freedom or support for the media, dominating the training and professional field of journalism. This long-lasting culture impacted and shaped both outside and inside the country.

Boosting the daydreaming of opposition characters

Amir Mosadegh Katouzian, broadcast journalist and former co-director of the RFE/RL Persian Service (Radio Farda), believes “the foreign-based Persian-language media have not challenged the Iranian authentic or self-proclaimed opposition leaders or characters.”

He explains:

Having said that, over the past decades and years, the output of those outlets that hide their funding source(s), engage in propaganda, and employ political activists under the guise of directors, editors, and journalists has been different from the media outlets with transparency in funding.

On another note, to be completely fair, even the most financially transparent, journalistically balanced, and professionally supervised foreign-based Persian-language media have not on many occasions challenged the Iranian authentic or self-proclaimed opposition leaders or characters as much as they have second-guessed claims made by the ruling regime or its officials. This has been the case in the previous year, both when it has been obvious that diaspora-residing opposition ‘leaders’ and ‘cliques’ made blunt false promises as well as when they fell short of these promises.

During the recent protests in Iran, in other words, overall, most large Persian-language outlets operating from outside suffered from ‘goal displacement’ — i.e., decreasing fair, balanced, informative, and critical coverage of all sides at the expense of boosting the daydreaming(s) of the opposition characters residing outside Iran.

Reza Moini, who helped many journalists in exile, explained the misunderstanding journalists have regarding their function.

According to him, some journalists consider themselves “the voice of ‘the masses and the people,” and it is a misunderstanding of journalistic professionalism.” He adds that many of these journalists consider this view to emphasize the “guidance of ignorant people” instead of the provision of “accurate, quality, and truth-oriented information.” 

However, interviewees believe there is hope for these Persian media to have an impact on the freedom movement in the country.

Repeating claims without checking

Nazilla Golestan, political activist and media producer considers that in many cases these media outlets “repeat” and “promote” some opposition’s claims without fact-checking. Golestan, who is also the speaker of the opposition organization HamAva, said to Global Voices:

The role of the media should be to enlighten and magnify the voices of citizens in Iran who do not have a voice and are fighting against the regime's brutal posturing. Therefore, those campaigns and appeals that were committed by Persian-language media outside of Iran in promoting leadership for a transition in Iran in support of the “Woman, Life, Freedom” revolution were fundamentally misleading and wrong. Also, these media outlets have wrongfully committed to showing a strong bias and support in favoring a few political activists or celebrities outside of Iran. Allow me to give you examples. Someone named “A” claimed that she or he had requested compensation from the US government for Iran's blocked funds and that the request had been granted. Instead, due to personal beliefs, this person did not take the money. Some news outlets simply reported the news in affirmation of leadership propaganda outside of Iran.

While Katouzian, like Moini, emphasized that we can not put all these media outlets in the same basket, he mentioned the propaganda-like activities of some of these media outlets.

He  explains that “one of these outlets even went as far as repeatedly using an obscure Telegram page named ‘Javanan-e Mahallat-e Tehran’ (‘Tehran Neighborhoods’ Youth’) as a credible news source, disseminating its calls for action and demonstration.”

During the past year, statements supposedly from Javanan-e-Mahallat groups in different cities were boosted by some media outlets without fact-checking. These “groups” in “different cities” disappeared soon, and no explanation was provided by these media outlets. Some even consider this group a fictional creation of these media outlets.

These media outlets skip, except for a few rare exceptions, any discussions on the opposition’s failures or lack of transparency. 

Golestan adds, “It is equally important to point out that, during the anniversary of the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ revolution, the world witnessed that people inside the country paid little attention to the above propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation, and Iran's young generation looks ahead with intelligence and vigor, building their own grassroots leadership from the ground up.”

Reporting truth as antidote to rulers’ propaganda

Chafiq explains the important possible role these media outlets can play for the Iranian democratic movement. She says “The activities in these areas [reporting the truth, presenting different opinions on current issues, expanding critical thought to deepen thought.] are not separate from each other, but rather complement each other. I think the mass media are more or less active in the first two areas, but the third area has no place in their activity. One point that receives less attention is that neglecting critical thinking has a negative effect on the activities in the other two areas (i.e., informing and enlightening about current issues).”

Katouzian, in his turn, believes:

Professional, balanced, and fair news coverage of events in nations ruled by oppressive regimes is no easy task, and such endeavors are even more difficult amidst upheavals, protests, and repression … But there is always room for hope. If and once especially the more journalistically fair, inclusive, and correct of these foreign-funded outlets get their act together by overcoming populism and ‘group-mind’ — or ‘herd-mentality’ — they can raise the level of challenge and debate within the ranks of the Iranian democratic movement. Toward this end, Persian-language media funded by outside governments and sources would do well if, in their news and analysis coverage, challenged the views and narratives of the ruling regime and its opposition.

While sometimes the opposition’s actions outside the country remind us of the Orwellian world of “Animal Farm” when the boundaries between “revolutionaries” and “power holders” are blurred, inside the country, Iranian women, men, and children defy the Islamic Republic and continue to make sacrifices for freedom and justice.

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