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Iran’s Control over Coronavirus News Adds One Humanitarian Crisis on Top of Another

Iran’s Control over Coronavirus News Adds One Humanitarian Crisis on Top of Another
Iran: Coronavirus outbreak

This week, Iran surpassed 38,000 deaths from the novel coronavirus. However, the Iranian regime has acknowledged only about 6,000 of these deaths. To the extent that the world is aware of the others, it is because of the tireless efforts of dissident journalists and Iranian activists, especially those associated with the National Council of Resistance (NCRI) of Iran and the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) 

The NCRI has been tracking the impact of the coronavirus outbreak since it was first acknowledged in February, and it recently released a report detailing not only the scale of the infections and fatalities but also the tactics whereby the regime suppresses public awareness of the crisis. 

The report noted that thousands of recent deaths have been miscategorized as heart attacks or unspecified pulmonary ailments when in fact Covid-19 was at least a contributing factor. It also noted that in many cases, the bodies of the deceased have been buried hastily, even against the wills of family members, in order to forestall a fuller understanding of the causes and the underlying crisis. 

But an examination of the bodies is not the only potential source of that understanding. Their very presence in Iranian hospitals and morgues should be evidence enough to conclusively undermine the regime’s claim that there have been only 6,000 Covid-19 deaths spanning a nation of 83 million people. And as it happens, numerous Iranian doctors, nurses, and morgue attendants have made efforts to expose the current prevalence of untimely death in their country, by sharing images and personal accounts from several weeks’ experience with the outbreak. 

Those accounts do not last very long, either on social media or in domestic news sources that operate independently of the regime state media. Online content is heavily censored in Iran, and the entire media landscape is tightly controlled. 

During a nationwide uprising last year, the clerical regime made international headlines by shutting down internet access across the board for several days, which was followed by massacring over 1500 protesters according to the MEK. And at the beginning of April, as the Iranian regime finally adopted lockdown procedures as part of a late, brief, and inadequate effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the regime ordered a similarly comprehensive shutdown of all newspapers. 

The lockdown is now effectively ended, and as a result, the regime’s control over the flow of information is arguably more important than ever. This is because the relaxation of social distancing standards is sure to cause a new spike in coronavirus infections and deaths. At least one study has applied recognized statistical models to the initial rates of infection described by the NCRI and has determined that the reopening of Iran’s domestic economy could result in an additional 60,000 deaths just by the end of May. 

This is an unmistakable humanitarian crisis, and it is made even worse by the tactics that the regime is likely to implement in order to make sure that the general population remains silent about the increased rates of sickness and death they will be seeing. Not only have those people’s voices already been purged from the regime’s media landscape but in many cases, they have been imprisoned for the invented crime of “rumor mongering.” 

Brigadier General Abolfazl Shekarchi, a spokesperson for the regime’s armed forces, used that phrase on Tuesday in televised remarks that included a specific figure for the number of these arrestees. According to him, 3,600 people have been detained and may now be facing a sentence of up to three years in prison plus flogging, in line with the guidelines laid out by the judiciary at the beginning of March.

In reality, many of the detainees can be expected to face even longer sentences than that. This was made clear by Shekarchi’s broader remarks, which made reference to longstanding conspiracy theories that paint all opposition to the clerical regime as being the product of subversive cells that operate on the behalf of foreign “enemies” like the United States and the United Kingdom. This is a bogus claim by the regime to undermine the role of the opposition groups, particularly the MEK and to cover mullahs’ fear of their real enemy.  

Simple challenges to state media narratives may be considered evidence of a coordinated assault on national security, even when those challenges are coming from thousands of Iranians at once. In fact, the regime has blamed foreign-controlled “elements” for every recent crisis including last year’s nationwide uprising. 

Even now, people are still being prosecuted for their role in that uprising, and some have been sentenced to death. The same fate could await some of those who have contradicted the regime’s coronavirus narrative, especially if they did so by feeding information to the country’s organized Resistance. 

For years, that opposition movement has been a reliable source of information for Western audiences. The NCRI’s disclosures about the coronavirus underscore that fact. 

If Iranian officials were willing to peddle a familiar conspiracy theory to justify a crackdown on millions of citizens who were protesting poverty and economic mismanagement last November, it doesn’t take much imagination to conclude that they are willing to deploy the same tactics against the millions who are now watching their neighbors and loved ones fall sick and die from Covid-19. 

Given the true scale and impact of Iran’s outbreak, it is reasonable to conclude that 3,600 is probably a low estimate for the number of people who have been arrested on the charge of “rumor mongering” about the coronavirus. And given the continuity between their revelations and those of banned Resistance groups, such as the MEK and NCRI, it is difficult to overstate the danger that those people are now facing. 

The international community must not allow the coronavirus pandemic to blind them to the Iranian regime’s human rights abuses that may actually be growing worse against that backdrop. And the world must also understand that as long as those abuses are ongoing, a full understanding of Iran’s coronavirus outbreak will remain obscured by the regime’s incessant propaganda.