On Wednesday, Iran will mark its annual celebration of the press. It’s called “Journalists’ Day.”
This long-running display of cognitive dissonance is a reminder that Iran’s Islamic Republic aspires to present itself as something it is certainly not: representative, transparent and tolerant.
The day commemorates the Aug. 8, 1998, attack on Iran’s consulate in the Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif by Taliban fighters who abducted 10 Iranian diplomats and a reporter for the Islamic Republic News Agency. They were all killed.
Each year the authorities stage a ceremony in one of Tehran’s largest auditoriums. Dignitaries give speeches and present awards to print, video and photo journalists who have distinguished themselves with their work - at least in the eyes of the powers that be.
These are, of course, the same officials who habitually flout diplomatic norms and press freedom. It’s an exercise that evidently requires considerable moral gymnastics. But such hypocrisy is deeply ingrained in Iran’s theocratic system, which demands outward adherence to rules that are often ignored by those in power.
But instead of simply dismissing the ceremony as bogus, we should use the opportunity to acknowledge that Iranian journalists remain committed to informing the public - often at great peril to themselves.
Iran is far from the only country in its region where the media must contend with harsh restrictions. Yet there are many reporters in the country - both foreign and domestic - who remain committed to explaining a society that is notoriously hard to access and navigate.
Honest and hard-working journalists in Iran - and in other authoritarian countries - deserve far more credit and respect than they receive for working within the strictures of states that have little use for the free flow of information, and in many cases actively work against it.
Good luck making sense of events inside Iran without the dedicated efforts of foreign and domestic journalists. Though their roles are often neglected, they are instrumental when it comes to illuminating one of the most opaque societies on Earth.
Inside Iran, dozens of journalists, including me, have been imprisoned under false accusations of cooperating with foreign governments. Nothing - not even that smartphones and social media that have made censorship increasingly ineffective - has slowed Iran’s ruthless campaign to silence reporters. Even in Orwellian dystopias, there are always those who defy the rules in pursuit of truth. In my experience, there are many more of them than one might think.
The reality is that much of what we know about Iran comes from reporters working at state-run media outlets who have unfettered access to information - often government reports or incriminating images of corruption and repression - that they are compelled to censor before distributing to the public.
In 2009, following massive unrest over the contested reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a treasure trove of documents, photographs and video surfaced confirming the state’s brutal repression. That sort of material could come only from state archives breached by its employees.
Such leaks continue, quietly but consistently.
These reporters work at great personal risk and for little reward. Honest Iranian journalists face undeserved pressure from a state that tightly controls access and threatens them both obliquely and overtly.
Iran’s state TV news channel often clumsily retaliates against reporting it finds threatening by airing false and coerced confessions from journalists and other detainees under duress. “The regime has extended its fight against media freedom beyond the country’s borders and also targets the international media, even as it tries to maintain appearances,” Reporters Without Borders wrote of Iran this year. The group’s annual Press Freedom Index ranked the Islamic republic 164th out of 180 countries.
Iranian authorities, for example, have taken aim at the BBC Persian service’s staff and their family members by blocking their ability to make financial transactions. This isn’t a new tactic. The regime has, for years, harassed Iranian journalists living and working abroad.
Meanwhile, propaganda and other forms of fake news, disseminated by both the state and some of its opponents, spread rampantly (especially on the popular messaging app Telegram), additionally undercutting the impact of any accurate reporting.
All in all, now is a bleak moment for journalism in Iran. Colleagues there report that the already narrow space for expression is closing. At a time when Iran is facing renewed external pressures as well as rising internal discontent, that should be worrisome for everyone.
But for the moment I’ll take the opportunity to send a message to journalists fighting the good fight in Iran: I salute you.
Jason Rezaian is a columnist with The Washington Post.