Resignations of several Iranian state journalists a blow to Tehran's ability to control narrative
By RICK NOACK | The Washington Post | Published: January 14, 2020
Reporters for Iran's state media routinely toe the government line. In the chaotic aftermath of Iran's admission that it shot down a Ukrainian airliner, that admission appears to have pushed several journalists to resign, shaking Tehran's grip on the national narrative.
On Wednesday, Iranian state television reported the deaths of 80 U.S. soldiers in Iranian strikes against bases in Iraq in response to the U.S. killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani. In the following days, the same outlets continued to repeat claims that technical problems had caused the crash of a Ukraine-bound passenger jet shortly after its takeoff from Tehran.
None of it was true.
No U.S. troops died in the strikes and Tehran shot down the Boeing jet, it admitted Sunday.
"[Iranian viewers] were blatantly lied to," said Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.
To close observers of Iran, the false claims were not surprising. But the resignation of those representing a media apparatus that propagated them was. Several journalists working for state media quit, announcing the moves in social media posts that have since disappeared. One state TV anchor, Gelare Jabbari, apologized on Sunday for "having lied to you on Iranian TV for 13 years."
The Tehran Province Association of Journalists released a searing statement through a state-controlled news agency. "What endangers this society right now is not only missiles or military attacks but a lack of free media," the organization wrote. "Hiding the truth and spreading lies traumatized the public. What happened was a catastrophe for media in Iran."
The resignations may spell trouble for Tehran's ability to control the flow of information, analysts said Tuesday. While they highlight "deep-seated popular anger and frustration," said Sanam Vakil, an Iran researcher, the resignations are also likely to "resonate among the political establishment" of Iran.
"This is not something that they're going to be easily able to wash their hands from," said Vakil, who is the deputy director of the Middle East North Africa Programme at Chatham House, a London-based independent policy institute.
Fathollah-Nejad cautioned that the impact was mostly symbolic for now, given that the influence of state TV has long been in decline and most Iranians "don't get their information from state media." But the resignations make it harder for regime officials to pretend otherwise and are "an important symbolic gesture" to the public, he said.
Despite state television's diminished influence, the signs of protests coming from within Iran's state media apparatus still appeared stunning for a country that ranked 170th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom last year, according to Reporters Without Borders, and which has targeted both domestic and international journalists.
Reporters Without Borders called Iran "one of the world's most repressive countries for journalists for the past 40 years," with an unrelenting "state control of news and information." Independent journalists in Iran "are constantly subjected to intimidation, arbitrary arrest and long jail sentences imposed by revolutionary courts at the end of unfair trials," according to the organization.
The Iranian regime's ability to control the narrative has never been all-encompassing, though, as the protests following the 2009 presidential elections showed. Some Iranians have long been able to access independent news sources, online and via television channels such as BBC Persian that are broadcasting via satellite inside Iran. Events that challenge the Iranian regime's control, Vakil said, have been "happening in greater frequency and I think it's definitely a reflection of access to the Internet."
Increasingly, social media networks and foreign news sites are providing young Iranians another window into other countries' reporting on their country — and an opportunity to share their own thoughts, videos and images. While state media journalist Jabbari's apology on Sunday for "having lied" would have reached few people in the past, the fact that she said it on Instagram gave her a platform with millions of potential Iranian recipients.
"Young people get most of their information from the internet," a Tehran-based critic of the Iranian regime told The Washington Post on Tuesday. He was speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
With over 40 million users in a nation of 81 million, instant messenger Telegram quickly became Iran's most popular source of information in recent years. Alongside other apps including WhatsApp and Instagram, such platforms have allowed independent reporting to "spread in Iranian society," the regime critic added.
Iranian officials have struggled to gain back control. In 2018, it banned Telegram, but many Iranians continued to be able to access it via a virtual private network, which helps to create secure internet connections.
When anti-regime protests erupted across Iran last November, social media channels were initially flooded with a stream of photos and videos showing protesters blocking roads and defying authorities. But the stream of information soon slowed. The government interrupted service on mobile networks, then cut the country's digital ties almost entirely.
By temporarily shutting down much of the internet, Tehran chose a response that is increasingly common among embattled regimes, according to an analysis by civil society group site NetBlocks.
But it's a costly approach. Imposing internet blackouts for prolonged periods of time would have had severe economic ramifications in a country already reeling under U.S. sanctions.
The Iranian regime, said Vakil, is aware that "people are generally skeptical and cynical about the government narrative and messaging." In response, Iranian state media outlets have sought to deliberately exploit the prevalent sentiments of distrust and cynicism about the news, said Vakil.
Even though a 2012 U.S.-funded Gallup survey of Iranian news habits found widespread reservations about the trustworthiness of state television, foreign news sources were also treated with caution.
By falsely announcing the deaths of 80 U.S. troops and blaming the passenger jet's crash on technical problems, said Vakil, state media were "trying to build their own narrative," even though they were well aware that "Western agencies were going to completely destroy their story."
Their aim was to "spread confusion, sow doubt in people's minds, make people doubt the Western narrative," said Vakil. While that strategy is not new, the resignations that followed last week's misinformation campaign suggest that it's an approach that may have reached its limits.