Since the US presidential election, “fake news” has become a hot topic internationally — or, as some have said, an epidemic only slightly less lethal than the Black Death.
But this epidemic is not unique to the US. It permeates every corner of the world, and is regarded as a godsend by those who find the truth inadequate for their unsavory purposes. It’s not that lies and libelous statements are anything new, of course, but the internet, and social network sites in particular, have made it possible to spread these lies far more effectively than ever before, and reach audiences unimaginable in previous times.
Iran’s ideological hardliners have not lagged behind in this trend. On November 28, Hossein Allah Karam, one of the leaders of the militant group Ansar-e-Hezbollah — the “Supporters of the Party of God” — posted a photograph of a single word on his Instagram page: “Infiltration.” Underneath the image, he claimed that journalist Afarin Chitsaz had confessed to having “immoral” relations with five of President Rouhani’s cabinet ministers. Chitsaz was arrested in November 2015 along with three other journalists. At the time, and over the course of their incarceration, the journalists have all been accused of belonging to an “infiltration network.”
Although Allah Karam stopped short of using Chitsaz’s full name — referring to her instead by her initials — it was clear to whom he was referring. He entitled his post “Female Spy Confesses to Immoral Relations with Five Cabinet Ministers,” and wrote: “It is said that A.C., who is in prison for spying, has named four other Rouhani ministers in new confessions,” adding that she had admitted to “immoral relations” with them. “This confession has brought the case of moral corruption against the cabinet to a new level. It can only lead to a tsunami of shame.”
If Allah Karam was illusive when it came to naming Chitsaz, he gave no such courtesy to the former Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ali Jannati, stating outright that he was one of five people who had had relations with Chitsaz — and that it was for this reason that he was forced to resign. Jannati stepped down in October, along with two other ministers. “God willing,” Allah Karam concluded, “this is not true in the case of other ministers.”
This is not the first time that hardliners have targeted Afarin Chitsaz and accused her of immoral behavior since her arrest last year. A few months ago, Mohammad Hossein Rostami, who describes himself as the director of the “Ammariyon Cyber Resistance Site,” claimed on his Facebook page that Chitsaz was the second wife of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and posted photographs of the journalist next to Zarif. It later emerged that the photographs were fake, and the face of Chitsaz had been Photoshopped over the face of Zarif’s actual wife.
As well as writing a column for the official Rouhani government newspaper Iran, prior to her arrest Afarin Chitsaz also worked as an actress and costume designer for movies. When she was arrested, agents accused her of conspiring against national security and having connections with hostile governments. She and her co-defendants — Ehsan Mazandarani, Saman Safarzaei and Isa Saharkhiz — were tried at Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court, which is presided over by Judge Moghiseh. Mogiseh has an international reputation for violating the rights of defendants, and human rights organizations have accused him of not adhering to principles of judicial impartiality. The European Union blacklisted him in 2011.
The appeals court, however, reduced Chitsaz’s sentence to two years’ imprisonment and banned her from practicing journalism for two years — a surprisingly lenient sentence for such serious charges. She is currently serving her sentence at Evin Prison. Her mother has claimed that interrogators beat her and forced to make confessions stating she was guilty of crimes she did not commit.
Rouhani’s Government Should Complain, too
According to her lawyer, Mohammad Moghimi, Chitsaz is aware of the new allegations and intends to file a complaint. “I have yet to meet her but I have arranged to do so,” Moghimi told IranWire. “The family has visited her and both she and her family are upset and plan to file a complaint.” Moghimi believes that the lies spread about Chitsaz online amount to criminal activity, and that his client can pursue the matter in court. “The crimes involved are libel, spreading falsehood and actions against public morality,” he said. He also said that not only should his client file a complaint, so should the defamed cabinet ministers. Furthermore, the Rouhani administration is entitled to file complaints because it has also been libeled.
I asked Moghimi whether anybody else had previously claimed that Chitsaz was Zarif’s second wife and whether a complaint against that person has been filed. “Up to now the family has been magnanimous and that gentleman put an end [to his allegations],” he said. “But now that things have taken on a new dimension, both the family and Afarin Chitsaz herself want to file complaints, and have asked me to do that on behalf as their lawyer. Considering the widespread damage that recently has been done I, too, believe that legal action must be taken and I have announced this.” The next step, he said, was meeting with his client to find out the specifics of what she would like to include in her formal complaint. “It is possible that legal action will be taken for previous cases as well,” he said.
Mohammad Moghimi categorically denies that Chitsaz has confessed to illicit relations. “As her lawyer, I can confirm that no such confession exists. She was charged with cooperating with a hostile government and that charge is a security charge. It has nothing to do with her moral behavior. Besides, those who are making these claims are neither judiciary officials nor interrogators, and they have absolutely no access to court documents. I emphasize again: no such confession exists.”