Senior officials wear face masks amid fears of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) as they attend a meeting of the Iranian…
FILE - Senior officials wear face masks amid fears of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) as they attend a meeting of the Iranian government task force on the coronavirus, in Tehran, Iran, March 21, 2020.

As coronavirus spreads in Iran, authorities have moved swiftly and aggressively to contain independent reporting about it by harassing, detaining and censoring journalists and social media users.

Tehran has questioned or detained journalists who contradicted or questioned official reports, warned that those publishing statistics other than government figures would be arrested, and issued censorship orders to news outlets. In at least one case, a journalist was forced to retract comments made on social media.   

Iran’s leaders downplayed the outbreak in February, when the first cases were reported. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in a March 3 broadcast called on citizens to “not overestimate” the virus, and regime officials including Hossein Salami, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), have said on state media the virus “might be the product of an American biological [attack].”

FILE - Iranian men bury journalist Abdollah Zavieh, who died of COVID-19, at Behesht Zahra cemetery in Tehran, March 24, 2020.

Tehran’s health ministry on Wednesday reported more than 27,017 cases and 2,077 deaths, but an emergency director for the World Health Organization has said the true figure could be “five times as high,” the U.S. news outlet Foreign Policy reported.

'Far worse'

“The situation of the coronavirus epidemic is far worse than what has been reported,” Mehdi Yahyanejad, a U.S.-based blogger and founder of the Balatarin news-sharing website, told VOA News. “Because of the chaos of the past few weeks, it is difficult to get a good grasp of the situation.”

Yahyanejad and other journalists said that Iran has maintained a firm grip on the media.

“Independent journalists are not allowed to freely report on the corona epidemic,” Yahyanejad said. “There are reports of increased scrutiny on journalists who report on the epidemic or criticize the actions of the Iranian government.”

Tehran’s attorney general, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, warned of severe consequences for those publishing statistics from nonofficial sources, the semiofficial Iranian Students’ News Agency reported.

Authorities have already summoned or arrested several journalists and citizens over their reporting or social media posts. They include Fardin Mostafaei, editor in chief of the news website Saghezrud, who called for the release of statistics for Saghez city; Mohammad Mokhtari, captain of the province’s Damash Gilan soccer team, who commented on the death toll in Gilan province; and at least 15 people in Tehran, Rasht and Qom who shared unofficial figures or questioned Tehran’s statistics via WhatsApp or Telegram chat apps.

IRGC agents arrested Mokhtari after he questioned the accuracy of the official figures, posting on Instagram, “Hundreds die every day in Gilan province, and corpses are crammed on top of each other. There is no grave available to bury them,” the U.K.-based news website Iran International and VOA Persian reported.

In at least one instance, a journalist was forced to delete a tweet and issue a new one that apologized for criticizing the official response to the coronavirus.

'Similar to wartime'

In Rasht, the capital of Gilan, where Tehran’s health ministry said the number of cases doubled in the first week of the outbreak, intelligence agents told two journalists summoned for questioning, “We are in a condition similar to wartime, and releasing information in this sensitive time is like cooperation with adversary states,” human rights websites reported.

Iran’s permanent mission to the United Nations in New York did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment. 

Iranian journalists and media analysts told VOA News the country’s media have had little chance of reporting on the outbreak because of pressure from Tehran.

FILE - A medic moves a patient in a ward dedicated for people infected with the coronavirus at Forqani Hospital, in Qom, 125 kilometers south of Tehran, Iran, Feb. 26, 2020.

One media analyst and journalist from Tehran, who spoke anonymously with VOA to avoid repercussions, said, “In a system where the government controls almost all news agencies and news organizations, and holds control over the majority of newspapers and news websites, you cannot expect sensitive news like this to see the light of the day.”

Reza Haghighatnejad, an Iranian blogger, journalist and television commentator based in Prague, Czech Republic, said that Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which governs the media, released two directives about covering the coronavirus.

The directives, translated and viewed by VOA News, ordered the media to use only official sources and statistics when reporting on the virus, and told journalists to avoid investigative reporting or asking other sources for data or information. 

Official sources only

“The orders clearly elaborate that the only sources to be referred to are the official sources and no other sources should be used, referred to or be taken into consideration,” Haghighatnejad said.

“Moreover, there are a lot of invisible pressures on journalists and reporters who try to do investigative reporting,” Haghighatnejad said, referring to restrictions on access to information and how editors and other decision-makers at news organizations often reject investigative pieces to avoid retaliation from authorities.

The Tehran journalist, who asked to remain anonymous, said authorities were making it impossible to carry out independent reporting.

“Investigative reporters cannot find a chance to do their research without being harassed by security agents, and [even then] they cannot publish their findings,” the journalist said.

Others said the censorship was no different from that applied to any other issue authorities deem off limits.

Mohsen Behzad Karimi, a U.K.-based Iranian journalist, told VOA News, “Corona or no corona, there is no press freedom in Iran.”