A senior advisor to President Hassan Rouhani has openly threatened Iranian journalists based outside the country — a rare example of an Iranian official providing evidence of the government’s sustained campaign against independent journalism.
Posting on Twitter, Hesameddin Ashena said: "The Persian-language media outlets are hereby warned to refrain from engaging in the psychological war related to the Ukrainian aircraft and cooperating with anti-Iranian rebels."
Although Iranian officials have a long history of intimidating Iranian journalists in the diaspora and the media in general, they have usually avoided making direct threats, so Ashena’s tweet was yet another shockwave in a hugely volatile time for Iran. The threat also resonated among the public in general, sparking fears that access to the internet could be blocked as it was in November, as the Islamic Republic continues to try to control the narrative of recent events —from the assassination of Ghasem Soleimani and Iran’s retaliation against US bases in Iraq to the deadly stampede in Kerman and the tragic plane crash on January 8.
The tweet came a few hours after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that there was evidence that the Ukrainian passenger plane that crashed near Tehran was shot down by an Iranian missile.
Warnings from Islamic Republic authorities to Iranian media workers based in the country are usually followed by harsh measures, including summons, arrests, prison or other sentences, including court bans on journalists’ activities. For the media outside Iran's borders, threats are often followed by authorities harassing the families of these journalists, so that while they are able to exercise their social and civil rights outside the country, their loved ones are prevented from doing so.
Iranians were unsurprisingly vocal on social media about Ashena’s threat, and a satirist's joke was widely shared on Twitter: "Send your plainclothes agents to Twitter to wrap up the protests in two days!"
One journalist appealed directly to the adviser: "Mr. Ashena! do not threaten a journalist!"
Following the November 2019 protests, the Iranian government accused overseas media and its staff of "terrorist activities" after it reported on the protests and the authorities’ crackdown on them.
For years, journalists based abroad have detailed the relentless pressure, censorship and harassment they and their fellow journalists based in the country face. They have described how Iranian officials carry out their threats in obscure, indirect ways, often verbally or sometimes via "confidential" instructions issued by the National Security Council about a specific matter that it deems to constitute a danger to the country. Direct, written threats are rare, particularly for an official with such close links to the president.
Iranians were shocked by the regime’s unprecedented crackdown on the flow of information during the November 2019 protests. The move revealed that the government, the Supreme Leader and the country’s governing bodies had reached a new level of brash confidence and an increased willingness to suppress people’s freedoms in a very public way. Ashena’s recent public display of control seems to support this confidence and renewed bid for control. The adviser, who has positioned himself as a media and communications expert, has chosen direct action over a more subversive, subtle violence. There is now evidence in the public domain that the Islamic Republic runs a sustained campaign against the media, and that it is prepared to step up its tactics whenever it deems it necessary to do so.