How Iran manages foreign correspondents

How Iran manages foreign correspondents
Comment: Tehran keeps visiting journalists on a tight leash in order to control the country's image overseas, writes Majid Mohammadi.
5 min read
11 Dec, 2015
Iran's authorities have a three-step process to keep tabs on foreign media [AFP]

There is a huge gap between what is shown of Iran in Western media such as Reuters, the Associated Press and The New York Times, to name a few, and what the reality in Iran is.

Bilingual Iranians who follow the local news through a variety of outlets in Iran and abroad and try to be in touch with their family in Iran often don't trust the reports of Western media.

The question is why the very journalists who do a professional job in their own countries often fail to do so when they travel to Iran. The answer goes back to Iran's system of controlling and managing foreign journalists.

Tehran has a three step process to manage foreign media: a tight screening process for selecting which journalists get a visa to travel to Iran, controlling them while they are in Iran, and finally looking over their work when they leave the country.

Iran's officials are not the ones who invented this process; they simply copied it from the Soviet model.

Getting the visa

Most people think that journalists would go through the same process as other visitors when they want to travel to Iran, and then they do their job in Iran with neither hassle nor supervision.

This is totally incorrect. At the first step, they must obtain a "journalism permission" document from an Iranian embassy, otherwise their activities will likely be deemed to be spying, and they might be arrested - which might even cost them their lives. Just think of Zahra Kazemi, who died while in custody.

Having this screening process, the Iranian officials can stop anyone at the door. Those who have a style of clear critical political thinking do not even make it to Iran.

     Having this screening process, the Iranian officials can stop anyone at the door


There is an office for foreign press in Iran whose main job is to control foreign journalists. All journalists should coordinate all their activities with the officers there.

These officers guide and direct the journalists to work based on the guidelines of the current leadership policy. They also ensure that the journalists are not visiting Iranians who are on the "black list" - consisting of the most informed and critical Iranian citizens.

Any violation by the journalists will be recorded, and might jeopardise their career in Iran.

After leaving

Even after leaving Iran, correspondents should not write any article criticising Iranian officials or their actions, and should not violate "the red lines" - or else they might lose their chance to come back to Iran.

Just as a simple proof, foreign journalists who have travelled to Iran have never written anything about the aforementioned process. They know that they are not allowed to ask any challenging or high-profile questions of Iranian authorities, or else they will also be put on "the black list".

Despite all these limitations, journalist have some ways to discover the realities that the regime doesn't want them to know or report.

However, they do not report their findings out of fear of losing the connection with the government officials which they might need at some point later in order to have access to some critical information.

This is not unique to Iran. Even US journalists working for The New York Times and Washington Post did not ask the Bush administration hard questions about the war in Iraq, as they did not want to lose their channels to the officials.

According to Iranian officials, what is going on in Iran is confidential and should not be revealed to the "enemies" - Western countries. Most of the time, scenes reported by foreign journalists are simply engineered.

During official demonstrations or voting days, the journalists are given permission to report what is going on with a pre-scheduled plan. This is why the opposition abroad always takes these reports with a grain of salt due to what they know is going on behind the curtain.

With all of these restrictions, the least they can do is to report the opinions of both sides, a task in which they often fail.

     The least they can do is to report the opinions of both sides, a task in which they often fail

Deal makers

The deal makers are the last piece of this ugly puzzle.

Unfortunately, they are the ones who will be chosen by some journalists to reflect "the true voice of the Iranian people". Deal makers such as Houshang Amirahmadi (American Iranian Council), Trita Parsi (National Iranian American Council) or those who give service to Iranian officials while acting merely as translators are considered as well-informed people with access to Iranian officials.

They will impersonate opposition, while not being the case at all. Hooman Majd, Ahmadinejad's personal translator, called him a "complete crazy man" on John Stewart's Daily Show when he was out of office, and calls Rouhani a "pragmatic reformist" - while both men are simply followers of the leader of the country.

They can easily go back and forth to Iran, and then show up everywhere upon TV channels as "informed Iranians" - and not on the government's side.

Those few channels that every once in a while reflect small portions of human rights violations in Iran are usually considered "Zionist-serving media" by Iranian officials.

Majid Mohammadi is an Iranian-born academic and the author of several books in Persian and English on politics, arts and religion in Iran.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.