By: Alejo Vidal-Quadras
Last week, Iran’s democratic Resistance movement won its latest victory in court against a media outlet that had chosen to repeat false allegations against Iran’s main opposition organization, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK). Despite the favorable judgement, the case itself is a reminder of the persistent nature of lies and rumors that are designed to politically damage the MEK and its parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).
The judgment in question was handed down by Hamburg Regional Court against the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung. It requires the newspaper to remove three separate claims from its digital edition and to avoid repetition of those claims in any format. It also notes that while the violation of journalistic standards was made worse by the fact that those claims were presented as factual, the same judgement would have been handed down in a legal challenge “even if these claims were stated as alleged.”
Legal penalties for FAZ were left unspecified in the initial ruling, but they could be as high as 250,000 euros for each of the false claims. Additionally, the paper is expected to be responsible for court fees stemming from the challenge initiated by the NCRI. The success of that challenge was ultimately assured by the fact that it was accompanied by NCRI and MEK documents that demonstrated the dubious credibility of sources used in the offending story, as well as showing that the MEK had not been given adequate opportunity to present contrary evidence.
In this way, the ruling against FAZ was highly reminiscent of a similar ruling issued approximately 15 months earlier, in the same district, against German news magazine Der Spiegel. The judge in that earlier case plainly stated that “the principles of permissible reporting of suspicious were obviously not respected,” and that the MEK “was not heard on a number of particularly serious accusations,” despite being recognizably prepared to make a firm statement countering them.
This sort of disparate treatment of the Iranian Resistance and its detractors is a common feature of various reports that have appeared in international media over the years. Publishers of such reports include renowned news outlets like the New York Times, although defamation of the MEK has also naturally appeared in outlets with more questionable reputations, as well as in Iranian state media.
As the NCRI has noted in responding to some of the offending articles, the various different types of publishers can reasonably be viewed as making up a “feedback loop” for disinformation. This is to say, coverage in otherwise reputable outlets is often influenced by false allegations and talking points that previously appeared in state media and in middle-of-the-road outlets that maintain lax standards in using such propaganda as a source for its own reporting.
When those talking points ultimately reach major publications like the Times or Der Spiegel, it allows Iranian state media to present the articles in question as valuable corroboration, despite the fact that every instance of defamation can ultimately be traced back to the same source. In fact, the NCRI has explicitly highlighted this feedback loop in its challenges to multiple defamatory articles that appeared in Western media over the past few years.
In each case, the articles in question were immediately republished and cited by a wide range of state media outlets and hardline news sources with ties to the Iranian regime. Anticipating this outcome last year, representatives of the NCRI even reached out to a BBC reporter, Linda Pressly, who was then working on a story regarding the MEK’s newly completed compound in Albania. The message warned Ms. Pressly of the potential for being used “wittingly or unwittingly” to communicate talking points that were based on a “script” written long ago by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS).
That agency has a long history of recruiting friendly journalists and persons with prior connections to the MEK in order to further legitimize the claims that have struck from multiple articles as a result of recent court challenges. The content of those challenges typically includes documentary evidence for preexisting ties between journalists’ sources and the MOIS. In an open letter responding to Ms. Pressly’s report, which was broadcast on November 7 of last year, an international group of the NCRI’s political supporters pointed out that it should have been obvious to the BBC that sources used in that report had been compromised, given that they were being monitored by Albanian authorities at the time.
The previous year, those same authorities ascertained that Iranian operatives had been plotting a terrorist attack on the MEK compound. A similar plot was uncovered in June 2018 by multiple European authorities with the intended target being an international gathering organized by the NCRI outside Paris, France. Furthermore, two Iranian operatives were indicted that year in a US court for spying and the complaint against them specified that their activities had been largely focused on preparing the way for attacks on the MEK.
The apparent outpouring of terrorist plots in 2018 can be credibly attributed to the fact that that year began with a nationwide uprising in Iran. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei specifically noted in a speech that MEK activists had “planned for months” to facilitate those protests and to popularize the associated provocative slogans like “death to the dictator.” Since then, Khamenei and other leading authorities have repeatedly pointed to the MEK as a genuine threat to the theocratic dictatorship and they have urged greater focus on repressing the opposition both at home and abroad.
This helps to explain the apparent necessity for the NCRI to continue challenging Western news articles and broadcasts that “wittingly or unwittingly” convey false information about the Resistance movement. In March, as part of an extensive rebuttal of a “campaign of demonization,” Ali Safavi, a member of the NCRI’s Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote: “Every time they face a significant impasse, the mullahs recruit a ‘friendly journalist’ to regurgitate MOIS propaganda against the [MEK].”
In the NCRI’s telling, the mullahs have essentially faced a constant impasse since the start of 2018. The uprising in January of that year was followed by what NCRI President Maryam Rajavi called a “year full of uprisings,” and in November 2019 another nationwide protest movement emerged, re-introducing the slogans from the previous uprising which suggested popular embrace of the concept of regime change.
Outcry over the January 2020 shoot-down of a commercial airliner has fueled further unrest this year as has Tehran’s ongoing mismanagement of the coronavirus outbreak. All of this has predictably resulted in an increase in domestic repression with 1,500 protesters having been shot dead during the November protests alone. But the MEK’s international presence and the resulting support for these protests has also prompted further outpourings of disinformation in foreign media.
And although these have been successfully challenged on multiple occasions, their broader impact will surely persist until such time as international media outlets stop participating in the regime’s campaign to demonize the democratic Resistance movement.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is President of the International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ)