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News Orgs Battle to Document Iranian Rallies

A government ban on foreign journalists following its refusal to renew credentials and sporadic blocking of cellphone and Internet services isn’t making coverage of the developing political situation in Iran any easier for U.S. and foreign news operations.  

The Iranian government on June 16 imposed a ban on foreign reporters, confining them to their bureaus and preventing them from filming rallies as thousands of protestors continued to clog the streets of Tehran in support of opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi.  And given recent detainments of journalists in Iran and North Korea, the mandate is being taken very seriously.

“Clearly we can only operate in Iran with the permission of the authorities,” says Jon Williams, World News editor for BBC News, adding that the recent arrest and detainment of Roxana Saberi is a stark reminder of the regime’s suspicion of journalists. “It would be foolish for anybody to continue to operate knowing full well that the authorities would love to be able to arrest legitimately.”

Iran has dominated headlines since the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on June 12. News organizations reported several deaths at a June 15 rally. There have been pictures of night-stick wielding police beating protestors. Video – professional and amateur – has shown bloodied demonstrators.

The news blackout is the latest roadblock for journalists and Iran’s tech-savvy populace, which has mobilized on blogs, social networking sites and messaging service Twitter to offer a boots-on-the-ground view of the controversy.

During the uprising, the Iranian government has intermittently jammed satellite feeds in an attempt to prevent news organizations from reporting live from the region. Text-messaging and cellphone services have been sporadically shut down. And access to Facebook and other sites has also been blocked.

Nevertheless, thousands of protestors have contributed video to blogs and social networking sites that in turn has been picked up by news organizations.

“They seem to be doing their best to quell dissent,” observes Kate O’Brian, Senior VP of news for ABC News. “But it’s not a complete, across-the-board shutting down.”

Indeed, access to broadband and the Internet have not been unequivocally blocked. The messaging service Twitter remains an important line of communication for Iranians, so much so that the State Department asked the San Francisco-based company to delay a scheduled maintenance shutdown on June 15. (The site did go down for about an hour on June 16.)

“You can still use broadband; you can still read the Internet,” says the BBC’s Williams. “It’s quite interesting the way they’re policing old media in one way and new media in another. I think it shows there’s an interesting discussion going on inside the regime. The Iranian government has for a long time presented itself as a sophisticated society.”

But whether or not the regime lifts the ban on journalists may be moot, as the credentials for many reporters covering the election have expired or soon will. On June 16, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour was back in London, while NBC News’ Richard Engel had returned to New York. The BBC has already had one team’s accreditation expire and correspondent John Simpson’s credentials are due to expire at the end of the week. ABC News correspondent Jim Sciutto’s credentials also will expire this week. ABC News has requested new credentials, but so far has been denied.

“They’re saying they are not at this point able to honor our request,” says O’Brian.

The reporters who remain have been limited to describing the scene without video or with rudimentary amateur recordings or old video from the state-run English language service Press TV. CNN's Reza Sayah could be seen speaking from the roof of his hotel. ABC's Sciutto has filed multiple reports via a cellphone camera. And Ali Arouzi, the Tehran bureau chief for NBC News, appeared on Rachel Maddow's MSNBC program on Tuesday night in front of a still picture of Tehran.

“The story is going to go different ways right now,” adds Parisa Khosravi, senior V.P. of international newsgathering for CNN Worldwide. “I think we’re at the fork in the road here. It’s an indication of how the story will go, whether the protests will be allowed to continue or not. If the media is going to get restricted, that’s a signal to watch.”