As hundreds of foreign journalists arrived in Iran to cover Friday's elections, they most likely faced long lists of rules and severe bureaucracy, as well as limited access to sources and information. Many will be forced to self-censor. But, as journalists who have been to the country tell IranWire, it’s easier to report from Iran than most people think.
Getting permission to report from a country like Iran, where censorship is rife, might seem like an impossible mission. But although journalist visas are said to be hard to obtain and only issued on special occasions, foreign reporters have experienced relatively more openness since the moderate Hassan Rouhani was elected president in 2013.
“During [conservative president] Ahmadinejad’s second term it was terribly difficult to get a visa,” says Elizabeth Palmer, TV reporter for the US television network CBS in an interview with IranWire. “But since President Rouhani was elected we’ve had visas and been granted extensions every time we’ve asked for them.”
As elections for the Iranian parliament and the powerful Assembly of Experts governing body approach on February 26, Iran is allowing 473 foreign journalists, cameramen and media workers into the country to report on events, Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance announced yesterday. These journalists represent 241 media outlets from 29 countries worldwide – from the US, UK and European countries to South America, Asia and neighboring countries in the Middle East. The visas are usually given to reporters for a period of one week.
Although CBS reporter Palmer is not in Iran for this year’s elections, she was among the foreign journalists covering the elections in 2009, 2012 and 2013. Since 2006, she has been on trips to Iran over a dozen times.
“Getting a visa for Iran is expensive, logistically complicated and time consuming. But I don’t sense political interference now. I don’t feel as if I am being blocked in any way. I feel that among the bureaucrats and reformers under Rouhani, there’s a genuine wish to establish more connections with the West,” she says.
A Scandinavian TV reporter who requested to remain anonymous also told IranWire that getting a visa to enter Iran had become much easier, though still a “lengthy process.” She has reported from Iran several times in the last couple of years, including the presidential election in 2013, and was surprised at the extent of freedom she was given.
“As soon as I received the visa, I didn’t find it problematic to cover the elections,” she said. “We could freely go around Tehran and talk to people. We received a long list with polling stations we could visit, and we just went in, filmed and talked with voters. I did a live shoot, and I said exactly what I thought needed to be said,” she recalls.
“I was surprised because of today’s picture of Iran. I experienced it as much easier to report than I had thought.” But she said too that she realized the situation was different for domestic journalists, who authorities routinely treat badly.
Permissions, Restrictions, Rules
Although conditions for foreign journalists might be improving, Iran is far from becoming a country of press freedom. The government controls and censors Iranian media at home, and has outlawed Persian media outlets such as BBC Persian. Iranian journalists are repeatedly harassed or imprisoned. And while the government tolerates the coverage of non-controversial topics such as speaking to voters and filming at polling stations, other topics are no-go areas, even for foreign journalists.
“For the kind of reporting we do; coming in and out for events and so on, there’s no political interference,” says CBS reporter Palmer. “But I’m sure it would be different if I were reporting on something that was very sensitive, something very critical of the hardliners, or investigate reporting.”
Iranian authorities can easily keep an eye on foreign reporters who are allowed into the country. These journalists not only have to apply for permission for everything they wish to cover, or any place they wish to travel outside of Tehran; they are usually accompanied by a fixer approved by the government.
“Anything you want to do, you have to have a specific permission for,” Palmer says. “So you can’t wake up one morning and think, let’s go off to Yazd today and talk to the bazaaris. Everything has to be according to a letter of permission. So it’s a very efficient way of controlling what we do, and it’s time-consuming too, so it just slows our efficiency on the ground.”
Having to obtain permissions, Palmer explains, makes things particularly complicated when it comes to speaking to officials or opposition leaders.
“Last election we asked to speak to a lot of people that we didn’t get. I would have loved to talk to Rafsanjani or Mir-Hossein Mousavi. But there’s no way we could do that,” she says, and adds that obtaining reliable information in Iran in general is an on-going struggle. “Information is very difficult to come by in Iran. It’s all squishy. It’s very hard to try to find a concrete truth. Either information is impossible to get because it’s not collated properly or most often we are just refused access to people we want to talk to.”
Pre-Election Crackdown and Self-Censorship
At Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a US-based nonprofit organization that defends the rights of journalists, they have also seen a rise in journalists being permitted to travel to Iran. According to Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East program coordinator, journalists increasingly contact them for advice, and more media consider opening offices in the country. But despite more openness in Iran, election day is “not an accurate portrayal of what happens on the ground,” he explains.
“The Iranian government tries to allow some space and credibility for its election, when the world is looking. We have seen journalists from major news outlets reporting live from the presidential election in 2013. But they arrived a few months after a government crackdown had already taken place. At the time dozens of Iranian journalists had been arrested and many of them threatened by different security elements. We have seen that happening every election cycle: The government usually starts their crackdown early before any foreign journalists make it to the country,” he says.
According to Mansour, this is exactly what has happened in Iran over the last couple of months. In November 2015, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards jailed at least five independent journalists, following with the arrests of dozens of reporters, writers and artists. The comprehensive fear created by Iranian security forces makes many Iranians reluctant to speak out.
“Iranians who speak to foreign journalists will inevitably be pressured or punished by the government after the journalists leave,” Mansour says. “Those people have already seen a crackdown a few months before and received warnings and threats. They are the ones who would be scrutinized the most, and who could face government backlash after the elections.”
CBS reporter Palmer also points out self-censorship and fear of what would happen to the locals as some of the biggest obstacles to reporting the true story about Iran.
“Our access is limited mostly by us wanting to protect people, and people wanting to be careful themselves. And for me as a reporter there’s a certain filter that is self-imposed because I work with our representative who is permanently in Iran. I wouldn’t want to do something that would get him into trouble or arrested,” Palmer explains.
Although she and other foreign journalists who visit Iran face restrictions, control and surveillance from the government, she is aware that her Iranian counterparts experience a much harsher type of censorship.
“We are both hostages to a regime that doesn’t like criticism and is paranoid. The Iranian journalists can be jailed, and we [foreign journalists] can be refused access ever again. So we are all walking on different kinds of eggshells. Clearly it’s much more drastic to be arrested than to be denied a visa. Iranian journalists, who I think are very brave, have a lot more to lose.”