Photo from NYT
Recently, we critiqued a Washington Post article that relied almost entirely on unnamed U.S. officials and a known terrorist organization to make the Iraq-redux argument that Iranian “defectors” are providing the U.S. government with critical information about Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Yesterday, The New York Times ran an article—by Nazila Fathi, ostensibly reporting on the execution of five prisoners in Iran on Sunday—that epitomizes the same kind of agenda-driven, threat-hyping approach as the Post’s piece on Iran’s nuclear program.
In her reporting since the Islamic Republic’s June 12, 2009 presidential election, Ms. Fathi has demonstrated a clearly “pro-Green” perspective which has, at times, weakened the professional quality of her work. We have addressed at least one example of this in previous posts. But yesterday’s article was an especially egregious example of political advocacy passing as journalism.
In the interest of intellectual honesty, we should state up front some of our own personal views that might be relevant to our commentary on Ms. Fathi’s story. As Americans, we oppose the application of the death penalty in the United States. We are very skeptical about application of the death penalty in other countries, but ultimately leave it to the people of those countries to sort out what kind of criminal justice system they want to have. (Interestingly, outside the United States, the death penalty is imposed not only by governments routinely described by Western human rights organizations as “authoritarian”, like those in China and Saudi Arabia. India, the world’s largest democracy, imposes the death penalty for some crimes. Likewise, Japan imposes the death penalty for homicide and treason.)
Furthermore, we are not out to defend the execution of the five individuals described in Ms. Fathi’s story, or any other execution that has taken place in Iran. However, we believe that we can recognize misleading reporting driven by an inflammatory agenda when we see it; unfortunately, Ms. Fathi’s story fits that bill.
Let’s start with the article’s title—“Iran Executes Five Activists, Sending Message to Critics”—and its first paragraph:
“The Iranian government hanged five Kurdish activists, including a woman, on Sunday morning in the Evin prison in Tehran in what appeared to be an effort to intimidate protesters from marking the anniversary of last year’s huge anti-government rallies after the June 12 election.”
What is the basis for Ms. Fathi’s judgment that the executions “appeared to be an effort to intimidate protesters from marking the anniversary” of the June 12, 2009 election and to “send critics a message”? Ms. Fathi cites the unsubstantiated opinion of the New York-based director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran to support her point, but does not cite Iran-based sources or any other evidence of Iranian public perceptions (not even opposition web sites). The New York-based human rights activist opines that “this could lay the ground for the execution of post-election protesters”. But, Ms. Fathi herself reports that the five people executed on Sunday were sentenced in 2008—well before the June 12, 2009 presidential election.
We recognize that Fathi may not be responsible for the headline, describing the executed individuals as “activists”. But, in the body of her story, she dismisses official justifications for the executions:
“Although the authorities announced that the five people executed Sunday had been found guilty of carrying out fatal bomb attacks, the executions were widely seen as intended to discourage people from rallying against the government on June 12.”
In keeping with the preceding discussion, we could ask, “widely seen” by whom, exactly? But the more important point here is that Ms. Fathi offers no basis for dismissing official claims that the five individuals executed Sunday had been convicted of carrying out fatal bomb attacks. She notes later on that Iranian prosecutors said all five had been convicted of “involvement in terrorism activities, bombings in government buildings and different parts of the country”. Three of the five were also “convicted of membership in an armed Kurdish rebel group, PJAK”. Ms. Fathi then notes that all five denied the charges of which they were convicted “in public letters posted on Web sites”. (She links to the website of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran to document this claim, but the link takes a reader to a page briefly describing such a letter from only one of the five prisoners.)
What Ms. Fathi fails to tell her readers—and which is surely relevant to evaluating the plausibility of official Iranian claims that the five executed prisoners had been involved in “terrorism activities” and “fatal bomb attacks”—is that the Obama Administration designated PJAK as a foreign terrorist organization in February 2009. Why would Ms. Fathi have omitted this material fact from her story? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, for Ms. Fathi, PJAK’s status as a U.S.-designated terrorist organization was an inconvenient fact, which might have gotten in the way of using the story of the executions to demonize the Iranian government even further in American eyes. Just as President Ahmadinejad’s re-election last year could not possibly have reflected the actual preferences of the Iranian electorate, anyone convicted of terrorist crimes in Iran must surely be the victim of government efforts to suppress popular aspirations for greater freedom. From this perspective, it does not fit with the preferred narrative if individuals convicted of terrorist crimes in Iran are members of a group that the U.S. government has designated as a terrorist organization.
Likewise, Ms. Fathi seems to have been intent on using the story of Sunday’s executions to “keep hope alive” for a revival of the moribund Green Movement—which, in her account, has Iranian authorities so worried that they are resorting to arbitrary and trumped-up executions to suppress it. Interestingly, after Ms. Fathi’s story was published by The New York Times, Mir-Hossein Mousavi issued a statement on his website, www.kaleme.org (which continues to operate without interference, as far as we can tell), likening the executions to the “unjust judicial procedures that have led to the awe-striking sentences issued for scores of Iranian citizens in recent months”. From this perspective, it also does not fit with the preferred narrative to report that individuals who are members of a U.S.-designated terrorist organization and had been convicted of capital crimes in Iran had had their sentences carried out. This would mean that those individuals had received the same treatment that the U.S. justice system meted out to Timothy McVeigh for the Oklahoma City bombing.
To be fair, The New York Times did not come up with the most loaded headline for a story on this episode; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty offered “Iran Hangs Five, Including a Teacher”. But, we think it is instructive to note the way in which the same story was headlined in some other newspapers around the world (we are grateful to a www.TheRaceForIran.com reader for bringing these to our attention):
–“Iran hangs 5 members of ‘terrorist groups’, Xinhua
–“Iran hangs five members of Kurdish ‘terrorist’ group”, Reuters
–“Iran hangs five for plotting bomb attacks”, Thaindian News
–“Iran hangs five terrorists”, Tehran Times
–“5 members of terrorist groups executed”, Press TV
Once again, we are not writing to defend the convictions or executions of the five individuals who were put to death at Evin prison in Tehran on Sunday. Just as wrongful convictions (and executions) are possible in the United States, they are possible in Iran as well. But asserting, without substantiation, that the five individuals who died on Sunday were wrongfully convicted and executed in order to advance a pro-Green political agenda is not responsible journalism and misleads the American public.
In 2002-03, The New York Times published multiple pieces on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction by Judith Miller, Michael Gordon, and others that failed to meet some of the most basic standards of journalistic responsibility and helped the George W. Bush Administration create an utterly false justification for the invasion of Iraq. Has the “Grey Lady” learned nothing from that shameful episode?
—Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett