The media crackdown in Iran may be just beginning. The totalitarian regime's banishment on foreign reporters covering the massive post-election unrest in Tehran and elsewhere will reverberate long after the green-clad protesters finally disappear from the streets, journalists predict.
"I think it's going to be very difficult to get back into Iran," says Richard Engel, chief foreign correspondent for NBC News. "We're openly being called the instigators of a revolt."
The theocratic government has been vocal in its criticism of the foreign media. State television is now running "confessions" from demonstrators who say they have been influenced to act immorally because of news reports.
"That's the message they are trying to put out; that foreign media are fanning the flames and leading people astray," Engel says.
No one who has reported from Iran - especially during the repressive presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when even harsher restrictions on foreign journalists were instituted - was surprised by the regime's post-election suppression. But during the run-up to the election, there was a brief period of relative openness.
"Iran was very confident of being able to show the world a vibrant democracy," says CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer. "So they issued a lot of press visas for media from around the world. Of course, right after the election when it all began to fall to bits, reporters had to leave because their visas ran out and [the government was] simply not extending them. Normally if you want to stay an extra few days, they will tack it on. But they just said that's it, everybody out, when they realized what we were covering was something they did want to have known."
Palmer, who is based at the CBS News bureau in London, has been covering Iran for six years and had a visa that enabled her to stay in the country after the media credentials of many other journalists had expired. But on June 22, the authorities ordered her to leave the country. She attempted to reason with the recalcitrant bureaucrats at Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, to no avail. She was met with "stony silence," she says.
"I said to them, we have one camera. You take that away; it simply won't have the effect you desire. You don't have to get rid of my camera; you have to get rid of every single cell phone in the city."
Amateur video of street demonstrations showing Basij militia and Revolutionary Guard troops using truncheons and firing into crowds of protestors have riveted the world and become a staple of television news coverage. And the wrenching video of a young woman, Neda Soltan, dying on a Tehran street was in steady rotation for several days.
"I think they were taken off guard by the anger on the streets and the groundswell of dissatisfaction," Engel observes. "And I think they were taken off guard again by the technology. They miscalculated how people would react and how difficult it would be to contain the message."
The country's tech-savvy constituency, especially university students in Tehran, has stymied the regime's ability to stifle the flow of information coming out of Iran.
"I think it's going to go down in the journalism school textbooks as the moment when a totalitarian regime came to grips with the fact that it has lost control of its image," Palmer says.
Journalists have long been at the mercy of the capriciousness of Iran's theocracy, as the recent incarceration of Roxana Saberi demonstrates. Dozens of journalists have been detained and intimidated during the current crisis, and some have been the victims of violence. Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari was arrested on June 21 and is still being held. The regime, Palmer adds, is "very threatened, and I think there's nothing so dangerous as a threatened regime."
As the regime continues its crackdown on journalists and opposition supporters, telling Iran's story will be more difficult than ever. Says Engel: "The next four or five months, it's going to be very difficult to get in there to report on this. They've gone into a total lockdown."
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