Media watchdogs say majority of visa applications from foreign news organisations to presidential election have been ignored
Severe restrictions have been imposed in Iran on foreign and domestic media to ensure that coverage of Friday’s presidential election is tightly controlled.
International media watchdogs and journalists say most visa applications from foreign news organisations to cover the contest have been rejected or simply ignored.
Press TV, an Iranian channel, quoted an interior ministry official on Wednesday as saying that over 1,000 journalists will be covering the election. But a concerted effort is apparently under way to limit coverage, especially by western media – perhaps out of fear of a repeat of the protests that followed the disputed 2009 vote.
Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based organisation, said on Wednesday that the Iranian authorities had not issued visas to the vast majority of foreign journalists who requested them. Iranian media were subject to “harassment, restrictions and censorship”.
Journalists who have obtained visas have been prevented from moving freely in Tehran, banned from meetings of candidates supported by reformers and from contacting government opponents or the families of political prisoners, RWB added. Visas are usually issued for one week.
British journalists have suffered badly, apparently because of the tense relations between Tehran and London, where both countries’ embassies are closed. Tehran is also deeply hostile to BBC Persian, which is hugely popular despite being unable to operate openly inside Iran. Its staff and their relatives are regularly subjected to official intimidation.
The Guardian’s visa application was rejected on the grounds of what sources in Tehran described as a “blanket ban” on UK media. The only mainstream UK journalist known to have got a visa is Channel 4 presenter Jon Snow, who interviewed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the outgoing president, in 2009. The Financial Times, New York Times and Washington Post have correspondents based in Tehran but they operate under often severe restrictions.
Ali Ahani, Iran’s ambassador to France, said he had granted 30 of 100 visa requests. But no more than a handful of visas appear to have been given to US media.
Iran’s culture and Islamic guidance minister, Mohammad Hosseini, said last week that his government would “closely examine” 200 applications from foreign journalists to keep out “Zionist spies”.
Reza Moini of RWB said: “They take a few well-known journalists and TV channels to demonstrate that they are being open, but they keep out almost all the others who want to come to Iran.”
Obtaining a visa is no guarantee of being able to work freely. “Each time you go out, you need permission from the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance,” one correspondent told RWB. “You have to tell them who you want to see, when and where. And to cap it all, you are watched by the government-imposed interpreters.”
Kelly Niknejad of Tehran Bureau, which has a network of anonymous correspondents inside Iran, said: “The Iranian authorities have always used their power to grant visas and press credentials as a stick to get journalists to fall in line.”
Independent and opposition voices remain under threat. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty said its Persian-language service, Radio Farda, documented nine cases in May in which family members of their staff had been harassed by the Iranian government.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, the New York-based media watchdog, accused the Iranian government of seeking to deprive its citizens of meaningful news coverage by blocking news websites.
“The Iranian regime fears any voice that could challenge its official narrative, whether a local journalist or an international journalist at a Tehran hotel,” the CPJ deputy director Rob Mahoney said on Wednesday. “Yes, they use different tactics to restrict international journalists, but the outcome is the same: Iranian voters denied essential information before Friday’s vote.”
A BBC News spokesman said: “We are disappointed that the BBC was not granted any visas to visit Iran to cover the election as it would have enabled us to give a more accurate and up to date perspective from the country. However, we will draw on the full resources and expertise of our London based staff in the Persian Service on global and domestic news outlets to provide extensive coverage.”