Iran has long been a leader in the ugly industry of silencing journalists within and beyond its borders, but Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul earlier this month eclipses even Tehran’s depraved treatment of reporters.
Theoretically, the Saudis’ blunder could give Iran a rare opportunity to improve its international standing by correcting its abysmal record on free expression and distancing itself from the growing repression of the media by its Arab and Turkish neighbors.
Early indications, though, are that Iran is determined to continue its tradition of silencing reporters on the flimsiest charges. The detention of journalist Pouyan Khoshhal is the latest example.
He was arrested, according to Tehran’s prosecutor, for a single word that appeared in an article in which he warned his readers how to avoid catching preventable diseases when millions take part in an annual Shiite pilgrimage to Karbala, Iraq, on Oct. 30.
It wasn’t this useful piece of public service journalism that led to his arrest. Nor was it the possibility that his advice on potential health risks might deter pilgrims from taking part.
Rather it was Khoshhal’s decision to refer to Hussein’s death as a “passing away” rather than “martyrdom,” which is how the event is described in religious — and, therefore, official — terms.
Khoshhal’s arrest comes just a day after David Kaye, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, delivered a scathing speech on Iran’s ongoing mistreatment of journalists.
It’s Iran’s targeting of journalists living abroad — specifically threats and legal action against nearly 150 employees of the BBC’s Persian service based in the U.K. and the U.S. — that has elevated the United Nations’s concerns.
Penalizing citizens and their Iranian-based families for their career choices in other countries is an audacious move, but desperate times require fresh repressive measures. The years of harassing journalists via intermittent interrogations, threats of physical violence, suspension of work permits and arrests were apparently achieving diminishing returns.
Iran’s representative at the session, Zahra Ershadi, responded by claiming that her country is the target of a “media war which is planned, organized and funded by hostile governments.”
Even if this were true (which it isn’t), it still wouldn’t justify the longstanding assault the Iranian regime has waged on many of its own citizens, including journalists — which, in turn, is a major reason that international campaigns to counter Tehran’s bullying of the press get so much traction.
Had the U.S. government more forcefully condemned Saudi Arabia, it may have inspired a shift from Tehran and other regional authoritarians, but that seems incredibly unlikely now.
Since 2015, when several reporters were arrested and tried for allegedly cooperating in foreign influence campaigns, the atmosphere for domestic Iranian journalists — as evidenced yet again by the arrest of Khoshhal — has become so stifled that very little real news gets reported anymore.
A growing number of Iranians who have immigrated to Western capitals but are still connected to people living inside Iran — like many of the BBC Persian employees — are reporting from abroad. It’s a trend that has been fueled by Iran’s own intolerance toward freedom of expression.
The murder of Khashoggi shines a new light on Iran and other regional press suppressors. They are at an intriguing crossroads: Will they continue their silencing of journalists at home and abroad or double down on crackdowns against expression and other civil society activities?
Tehran has used the gruesome silencing of Khashoggi as an opportunity to intensify its anti-Saudi rhetoric, naturally, but on Wednesday, Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, took it a step further by suggesting the U.S. was aware in advance of the killing. “I don’t think that any country would dare do such a thing without U.S. backing,” Rouhani told his cabinet in a meeting that was broadcast on state television.
The credibility of Iran’s official media outlets has never been lower, and the country’s leadership has inadvertently allowed its domestic airwaves to become the ultimate embodiment of their own hypocrisy.
When he was elected in 2013, Rouhani promised to open Iran’s social and cultural landscape by encouraging freer and faster Internet access, loosening government censorship of the media, encouraging foreign investment and promoting political debate. Despite brief flashes of each, the atmosphere around Iranian civil society is as suffocating as ever, and shows little sign of improving now.
Jason Rezaian is a writer for Global Opinions. He served as The Post's correspondent in Tehran from 2012 to 2016. He spent 544 days unjustly imprisoned by Iranian authorities until his release in January 2016.