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A young woman’s death in Iran has sparked an uprising. News organizations are grappling with how to cover it


By Oliver Darcy, CNN Business

Nationwide protests have gripped Iran for weeks following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was taken into custody by the government’s morality police for apparently not wearing her hijab properly. Her death has sparked violent clashes between demonstrators and authorities, reportedly leaving scores dead.

The uprising has received considerable attention in the Western press, especially as the fundamentalist Islamic regime has cracked down on the demonstrations with brute force.

But as protesters surge through the streets of Iran, Western news organizations largely aren’t filing stories from the authoritarian-led country that has curtailed the free press, jailed journalists, and shut down the Internet. NBC News does have a correspondent in Tehran (kudos to them), but because of logistical issues and security concerns, the vast majority of Western outlets do not maintain a presence in the country. Most datelines on stories are from the nearby region, outside Iran. The Associated Press and Reuters, for example, are filing stories about the unrest from Dubai.

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Western news organizations are largely relying on networks of contacts, groups like Amnesty International, a student-run news agency, as well as social media reports for information. CNN’s stories notably state that the network has “not been able to independently verify the number of the dead and injured.”

Pouria Mahrouyan, a senior editor at BBC News Persian who oversees the social media and interactive team, said that because the news organization has no reporters in Iran, they are “largely relying on social media and user-generated-content” each day.

But doing so doesn’t come without risk. Of particular concern, Mahrouyan said, some videos posted to social media sites are part of a government disinformation campaign. “They have a cyber army and they massively produce social media videos, even fake interviews,” Mahrouyan said of the Iranian regime. The government, he said, has also attempted to set traps to manipulate Western media into reporting falsehoods: “They can then say foreign media is reporting fake news.”

While the Iranian government is seeking to manipulate the conversation outside its borders, it is simultaneously using its state-controlled television and radio apparatus to control the narrative inside the country.

Trita Parsi, a prominent Iran expert, said the outlets have worked to “downplay the protests, ignore the protests, or cast them as a conspiracy.” Amir Hossein Mahdavi, another Iran expert, said state-controlled media is “depicting these events” in the same way the country’s supreme leader has: “Initiated by the outside, by the CIA and Mossad.”

Recent stories from Fars News Agency and Press TV, which both publish and broadcast in English, have breathlessly echoed the deceptions pushed by the country’s government.

But the regime’s attempts to control the narrative has faced setbacks. “There is a massive amount of people who have access to satellite dishes and getting their news from the outside,” Parsi explained. “It’s not like they are only relying only on Iranian news outlets, which they take with a grain of salt.”

In fact, BBC Persian is one of the most influential sources of information for those inside Iran. Mahrouyan noted the outlet’s Instagram account has one of the largest followings within Persian media, boasting 18.6 million followers.

“The ability of the state,” Parsi said, “to be able to push their narrative has been significantly weakened.”

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