Numerous people in Iran have been protesting against the government for months. Due to the strong censorship in the country, reporting on this is difficult. The regime’s propaganda is also being spread on social networks.
“How did the Iranian nation manage to end the recent unrest in this country?” is the headline of a video by the Iranian news agency IRNA, published on September 30, 2022. It shows pro-government rallies with apparently numerous participants. The Iranian national flag is waved, and the portrait of spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei can also be seen on posters. The video suggests: The people are behind the Iranian regime, the protests have been overcome.
The reality on that day was completely different: at least 82 people were killed Information from the human rights organization Amnesty International killed by Iranian security forces alone in the province of Sistan and Balochistan – September 30th will go down in history as “Bloody Friday”. At least 530 people have been killed in Iran since protests began last September, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency.
Protesters are referred to as “cockroaches.”
In the Iranian state media, however, a completely different picture of the protests is painted, says Farhad Payar, editor-in-chief of the Iran Journal. “The protesters are portrayed as vassals of the imperialist powers of the West who have been seduced by the Western media.” The “riots,” as the protests are called by state media, would be reduced mainly to “misled youth” who don’t know what they are doing.
The political scientist Ali Fathollah-Nejad sees the Iranian state media’s reporting on the protests as a continuation of old narratives: “They are always protests that are controlled from abroad, by enemies. These enemies are generally defined by the USA or Israel. That’s why Saudi Arabia is also added. And that is an absolute externalization of all responsibility.” The regime has portrayed all major street protests in recent years as a foreign attempt to destroy the so-called Islamic Revolution in Iran.
A new narrative in the current protests is that they are driven by Kurdish separatism to achieve secession of the Kurdish areas. The protesters are also often referred to in very disrespectful terms, says Fathollah-Nejad. “They are sometimes called cockroaches or hooligans.”
Freedom of the press is extremely restricted in Iran
The fact that there are hardly any media reports with different views on the protests in Iran itself has to do with the media landscape. In almost no other country is the media censored to this extent; the non-governmental organization Reporters Without Borders ranks Iran 178th out of 180 in its press freedom rankings. Iran is “one of the most repressive countries in the world for journalists. Hundreds have been prosecuted, imprisoned or executed there since then.” Media are subject to “systematic state control, the Internet is comprehensively censored, monitored and, for example during demonstrations critical of the government, repeatedly switched off for long periods of time.”
However, journalist and author Gilda Sahebi assesses the success of this state media control as manageable. “In Iran, hardly anyone believes the state media,” she says. “Most people know that only propaganda is spread there.” Instead, information would be obtained via foreign media or social networks – despite censorship.
“Iranian society has been used to circumventing the rules of the Islamic Republic for decades,” says Sahebi. “There’s the ban on alcohol, so they burn alcohol at home. There’s the ban on watching foreign TV, so they have satellite dishes on the roofs. There’s the ban on using Instagram and Twitter, so they use VPNs.” The abbreviation VPN stands for “virtual private network”. For example, VPNs can be used to bypass regional internet blocks because your own IP address is replaced by that of the VPN server.
Propaganda is partly adopted abroad
From the experts’ point of view, a bigger problem is that Iranian propaganda is not always recognized as such abroad. It happens again and again that the regime’s point of view is also reflected in Western media reports – also with regard to the protests.
On the anniversary of the Iranian Revolution in mid-February, many Western media outlets reported tens of thousands of supporters celebrating the day. However, images and videos on social networks gave a completely different impression: in some places there were significantly fewer people on the streets than the reports suggested. In addition, people report in other videos that to have been forcedto take part in the celebrations.
At the beginning of December last year, the news made the rounds that the so-called moral police in Iran would be disbanded – which could be interpreted as a supposed concession by the regime to the protesters. However, the “morality police” still exist today. “Smoke candles are always deliberately ignited in order to make Western countries in particular believe that they are willing to reform,” says Sahebi. “And that worked for years.”
The situation in the country has not improved at all for the people – on the contrary. “It’s gotten harder,” says Sahebi. “There is no concession there.” For example, the Iranian Attorney General’s Office has ordered the police to strictly punish violators of the headscarf requirement.
However, the Iranian regime does not only seek to control the domestic media. Foreign journalists cannot report freely from the country either, says Payar. “As soon as a journalist fails to report the way the government likes several times, he will be expelled or his visa will not be extended.” The regime would closely monitor foreign media coverage of Iran.
She also has this experience ARD-Correspondent Katharina Willinger made. She had to wait for months after the protests beganto get a temporary visa for Iran. She was also given the condition that she was not allowed to leave the capital Tehran. She also had to wear a headscarf.
Iran wants to isolate itself from the Internet
The Internet is also a thorn in the side of the Iranian regime. As early as 2012 it was announced that the government wanted to build a nationwide intranet in order to decouple itself from the Internet and thus prevent unwanted information from reaching the population. There is also the Iranian cyber police FATA, which tracks down users critical of the regime online. Most social networks only function to a limited extent or are completely banned – but high-ranking government members are represented on Twitter and the like.
There are also many pro-Iranian accounts on social networks that are not immediately recognizable as such, says Nava Zarabian, education officer at the Anne Frank Educational Center. They are intended to put the country and the protests in a different light. “These accounts spread the regime’s classic narratives. German influencers flew to Iran during the height of the executions in recent weeks and posted videos from there with the content: We haven’t seen anything here, everything is fine.”
According to Zarabian, pro-Iranian narratives are particularly widespread in Islamist circles. “Protests against the Iranian regime, especially in Europe, are presented there as anti-Muslim racism in order to discredit them and gain access to larger groups. That is why they often share anti-imperialist content.” The targeted false reports make it very difficult to get an overview of the situation in Iran on social networks.
It cannot be proven whether the “Cyberis” – as the pro-Iranian accounts are called by the protesters – are paid for this. “Iranian users use the term ‘Cyberis’ to draw attention to profiles that spread the regime’s narratives.” The protesters tried to expose them and point out their agenda. “It is important to understand that it is an ideology that is being spread by the Iranian regime. And this ideology extends all the way to Germany.”