The international press has an unfortunate habit of unwittingly repeating Iranian propaganda, not least about the Iranian main opposition the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI or MEK). The trend has been especially transparent during the coronavirus pandemic, with reports about Iranian outbreaks citing official state estimates for the infection rate and death toll. Some such reports acknowledge that critics of the Iranian regime are suspicious about the veracity of those numbers. But hardly any point to the independent estimates that counter the regime’s official narrative.
Information sourced from hospital and morgue records, eyewitness testimony, and collected local news reports indicates that the real number of fatalities is well over 63,200. This is more than six times the official estimates provided by Tehran, and it is a shocking illustration of the extent to which the Iranian government is unable and/or unwilling to seriously address the crisis. The discrepancy should also serve as a wakeup call for some reporters regarding the enormity of the disinformation they may be spreading if they fail to seriously scrutinize Tehran’s public statements.
The uncritical repetition of those talking points could have fatal consequences, and not just during nationwide crises like the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. Certainly, Iran’s effort to downplay the crisis has put more lives in danger. And certainly, that process has been exacerbated by the failure to counter that effort. But even after the outbreak has run its course, the effects of this silence could linger on.
That silence arguably legitimizes Tehran’s efforts to criminalize dissent. Those efforts, also, have been on open display during the pandemic. But of course they have also been a fairly constant feature of the regime’s domestic policies throughout four decades of theocratic rule.
The head of Iran’s national police force acknowledged in April that hundreds of individuals had been arrested on the vague charge of “spreading rumors” about the outbreak. In the same statement, he noted that over 1,000 websites had been shut down for the same reason. And there is little doubt that still more arrests and closures took place with less fanfare over the course of the more than four months since the outbreak was first publicly acknowledged.
Whatever the actual numbers, they must be added on top of the regime’s response to earlier protests and expressions of dissent, if foreign observers have any interest in developing a complete picture of the regime’s recent and ongoing crackdowns. The pandemic was immediately preceded by campus and street protests in January, which led to at least hundreds of arrests. And these in turn were preceded by a nationwide uprising in November 2019, to which authorities responded with live ammunition, killing 1,500 people and arresting thousands.
The victims of these earlier crackdowns are as unsung in the international press as the 50,000 unrecognized Covid-19 casualties, and the hundreds of brave Iranians who have sought to bring attention to those uncounted deaths. Many of those activists and intelligence assets are affiliated with the same organized political groups that led the November uprising. Chief among these was the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI or MEK), whose role underscores the need for scrutiny regarding all of Tehran’s public statements.
In normal times as well as times of extraordinary crisis, the MEK has been the target of extensive disinformation campaigns by the Iranian regime. Its false statements about the leading pro-democratic activist groups have had knock-on effects upon how a wide range of topics are addressed in the global media landscape and in Iran itself. The MEK has been fighting against this disinformation long past the point at which key talking points were successfully debunked.
This fact was put on display in June when a regional court in Germany upheld a lawsuit that had been filed against the Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). Coming barely more than a year after a similar judgment against Der Spiegel, the case affirmed that reporters had repeated Iranian talking points and had failed to abide by essential journalist practices regarding public allegations of wrongdoing.
Those allegations have an extensive heritage that stretches back to the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security. The NCRI has demonstrated on many occasions that sources used in stories by the likes of FAZ and Der Spiegel included individuals who falsely presented themselves as former members of the MEK after having been denied admittance to the organization on suspicion of collaboration with the Iranian regime.
Yet facts such as this have not stopped Western media outlets from giving greater weight to allegations against the MEK than they give to its own statements. This trend persists despite the fact that the MEK and NCRI have made every effort to be transparent regarding their political platform, their tactics of opposition, and their vision for regime change driven by the Iranian people themselves.
The NCRI’s message on these points and others will be broadcast to the entire world on July 17 when the coalition holds an online conference in place of its annual summer rally near Paris, which typically attracts tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates, plus hundreds of prominent political supporters from around the world. This year’s emphasis on remote access makes it especially easy for reporters and policymakers to hear directly from the leadership of the Resistance. And yet questions remain about whether the event will be given as much attention or as much credulity as the public statements Tehran issues through its state media.
If the global media doesn’t alter its approach, the waters will only continue to get muddier where Iranian affairs are concerned. It doesn’t particularly matter how many legal challenges to disinformation prove successful; countless numbers of readers throughout the world will continue to hear Iran’s talking points first and foremost. And lacking clarity about the nature of the democratic opposition, many policymakers will go on believing that there is no viable alternative to the theocratic dictatorship.
This could change; and there is no better opportunity to initiate that change than the July 17 conference in support of Iran Freedom.
Participants in that event are sure to give their updated findings on the coronavirus pandemic and to invite the reporters throughout the world to examine their methodology and reconsider the value of repeating Tehran’s talking points in the face of so much contravening evidence. This is perhaps the single most pressing need for correction in the international media. But once the status quo has been disrupted in that area, the media would be well-advised to turn a more skeptical eye toward all of the information coming out of Tehran, especially where the politics of the Iranian Resistance are concerned.