In July 2009, the Tehran fixer for a non-Western TV network had his hand chopped off with a machete by a pro-Iranian regime militant. His bosses stayed quiet: They knew if they spoke up, the Iranian authorities would shut down their bureau.
This was no isolated tragedy. In the year since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed reelection sent millions of protesters into the streets of Tehran in what came to be known as the Green Movement, journalists have found increasingly formidable obstacles to doing their job. Getting the real story out of Iran today is virtually impossible.
Instead, we are all -- to one degree or another -- in danger of misreading Tehran. And if at first the Western media seemed to overinflate the Green Movement, declaring a "revolution" and pumping up the expectation for regime change beyond all reasonable hope, some of what we're reading now is what the Iranian government wants us to read: a portrait of a quiescent country whose recent unrest was merely an irrelevant temper tantrum by sushi-eating, Chanel-clad north Tehran. Sadly, reporters who underplay the serious repression still present in Tehran -- whether those intimidated by the government, or those simply seeking better access or the ability to move more freely -- provide powerful ammunition to analysts in Washington who may now be tempted to dismiss Iran's Green Movement as a construct of deluded partisan journalists. This dangerous dynamic -- compromised journalism abetting a security establishment that would prefer to focus on Iran's nuclear confrontation with the outside world instead -- seriously threatens to undermine the West's ability to engage with both the Islamic Republic and the opposition on the basis of an honest picture of Iranian society.
When I last lived in Tehran in the mid-2000s, working as a journalist veered between the precarious and the harrowing. During relaxed periods, government officials scolded me for reporting on subjects they found embarrassing or inconvenient. They offered tea and pastry, but the steely message behind the Persian politeness was clear: Heed the red lines if you want to stay accredited. When the government felt vulnerable, civility vanished. In one especially unpleasant year, I was trailed by a hook-nosed security agent, bullied to inform on my sources, and threatened with prosecution for "endangering national security." That was all before the summer of 2009, when the Iranian government faced the most serious challenge to its rule since the 1979 revolution.
Now, the situation is far worse. Foreign reporters in Iran, whether permanently or temporarily, must constantly worry that their stories will provoke arrests or worse. Government filters on websites mean journalists spend hours fiddling with filter-busting software instead of reporting. Phones have always been tapped, but anxiety now runs so high that journalists cannot use their cell phones or office lines to call sensitive sources. The situation is so bad that even some journalists accredited to work in Iran have elected to move to nearby cities like Dubai or Beirut. Those who stay, or those who visit, end up occasionally producing pieces like one that recently appeared on the website of this magazine by Hooman Majd (who served as the official interpreter for Ahmadinejad during his 2006 United Nations visit). His oddly anesthetized dispatch from Tehran argued that the government enjoys widespread support in its quest for nuclear energy. But this is an unreasonable assertion -- and one that would have been much harder to make in the days when independent writers were able to gather Tehran ground truth for themselves. I remember well, for example, the reaction when Ahmadinejad launched his "nuclear energy is our absolute right" slogan in 2005: Mocking graffiti enumerating all the other things that were Iranians' "absolute right" went up across the low-slung walls of Tehran. My favorite example: the "right" to Danish pastry (the government had renamed this ubiquitous confection "Flower of Mohammad" pastry after the Danish cartoon furor). Few today have the opportunity to make even such a modest reality check. Instead, we are left with pieces like Majd's, which feed right into Washington's dominant national-security establishment view of the Green Movement as a mere distraction from the more pressing nuclear crisis.
With reporters on the ground so compromised by self-censorship, our ability to get a decent read of public opinion in Iran, let alone any smart, rigorously reported insight into domestic politics -- the opposition's strategy, the displeasure of the ayatollahs in Qom, the establishment's discomfiture at the prospect of sanctions -- is nonexistent. Even small, telling stories have become too sensitive to report, like the post-election defection of young journalists from Press TV (the government's English-language TV network) or the distressing rise of so-called "experimental hires" as firms exploit young people's desperation for jobs to extract months of unpaid work under the false premise of a trial period. Reporters for the Western media in Tehran have either failed to notice these stories or declined to cover them for the sake of retaining their credentials. I heard about them from a journalist friend in Tehran. I hope he's saving his notes.