The New York Times broke the news last Sunday morning that the Iranian government abolished its notorious morality police, government agents who enforce a strict dress code based on the state’s interpretation of Islamic Sharia law. They have become a universally condemned symbol of oppression after 22-year-old Iranian woman Mahsa Amini died on Sept. 16 in Tehran after the “morality police” arrested and beat her for not wearing her hijab “properly.” Amini’s death sparked nationwide protests that continue today.
The Times celebrated Iran’s abolishment of the morality police as an “apparent victory for feminists.” Other corporate media, from The Wall Street Journal to CNBC, quickly repeated the Times’ story. Margaret Brennan, host of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” began her interview with the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken by saying, “I want to start with some breaking news overnight out of Iran, they have abolished the morality police.”
Yet within minutes of the Times’ reporting, human rights activists in Iran and the West denounced the Times story as false. U.S.-based Iranian activist Masih Alinejad tweeted, “It’s disinformation that the Islamic Republic of Iran has abolished it’s [sic] morality police. It’s a tactic to stop the uprising.” Another Iranian activist, Amin Pouria, tweeted, “To lift world’s public opinion pressure, the IR changes [the] name of the ‘Morality Police.’ However, Iranian women & girls are still beaten, imprisoned or killed like #MahsaAmini for mandatory dress code. Don’t let the IR fool you with lies and be Iranian’s voice.”
Even Iran’s government and state media have denied suspending the morality police. Iranian lawmaker and cleric Hossein Jalali reportedly said the morality police are here to stay, and “the Islamic Republic’s crackdown on women not wearing proper hijab will continue with a range of measures that may include blocking their bank accounts.” Kasra Aarabi, an analyst of the U.K.’s Tony Blair Institute, called the Times’ story “fake news.” He pointed out in his tweet, “This disinfo was propagated today to distract media attention from the 3 days of major protests in #Iran which begin tomo. Why did mainstream media ignore this context?”
It turned out the Times’ report was based on a vague comment by Iran’s Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri. When asked by reporters why people hadn’t seen many “morality police” on the streets, Montazeri replied, “The morality police had nothing to do with the judiciary, and the same institution that established it has now shut it down.” The Times ran its story based on this comment while ignoring what Montazeri said: “the judiciary will continue to supervise social behaviors.” After the pushback from Iranian human rights activists, some media began questioning or adding context to the story. Still, the Times has issued no correction or apology to its original report.
How did Western corporate media such as the Times get the morality police story wrong? Corporate media today are less about reporting straight news than advocating narratives, and people who work at these outlets see themselves as activists more than traditional journalists. They search for and only report news that supports their preferred narratives. The fake story of the morality police’s abolishment fits neatly with the narrative that courageous feminists forced an authoritarian regime to make a compromise. It was such a perfect story that the Times’ reporters ran with it rather than spending time to verify and confirm it with more reliable sources.
I see a similar pattern in how Beijing’s latest moves to lift some Covid restrictions after week-long national protests were reported. One analyst of Human Rights Watch tweeted, “The Chinese government is now easing Covid restrictions, thanks to the protesters who courageously took to the street.” While it is true that Chinese protesters were courageous, and Beijing did announce some relief from its Covid restrictions this week, it is delusional to interpret Beijing’s action as a comprise to the protesters.
The Wall Street Journal reported that some Chinese officials were quietly seeking ways to ease the “zero Covid” restrictions to rescue China’s falling economy months before the nationwide protests. According to the WSJ, “Chinese exports fell at the steepest pace in more than two years in November, the latest indication of how the country’s pandemic restrictions and waning global demand for goods are throttling China’s economy.” Besides the economic toll, Beijing is concerned that the continuation of strict Covid controls would “threaten China’s key position in global supply chains” and “lead to a broader decoupling between China and the world.” While Xi publicly vowed to stick to his “zero Covid” policy, he permitted the lifting of some Covid restrictions because even he was keenly aware that economic instability would lead to social unrest. The economic reality, not the nationwide protests, drove Beijing’s latest announcement.
While there is easing, some loathed Covid restrictions remain in place. For example, in some cities, when even one person in an apartment building tested positive, local Covid police sealed the entrance and exit to the entire building and confined all residents in their tiny apartments, forcing them to survive on limited and often overpriced food delivery. The continuation of these inhuman restrictions should surprise no one because Beijing’s “zero Covid” policy was never about health care but controlling people.
Besides chasing narratives, the lack of understanding of the true nature of authoritarian regimes is another explanation for why corporate media outlets often fall for authoritarian disinformation and inadvertently become useful idiots for these regimes.
It is common for democracies to respond to people’s will and make necessary policy changes. But authoritarian regimes do not budge, and their response to civil disobedience is more violent oppression. Since nationwide protests erupted in Iran, more than 18,000 protesters have reportedly been arrested, and the death toll of protesters surpassed 470. This week, Aarabi tweeted that the Iranian government executed another young protester and announced more future executions. Canadian human rights activist and lawyer Kaveh Shahrooz said in an interview, “Iran’s regime is not normal; its official statements are often lies designed to mislead the world. Our media should not take them at their word and must exercise extra caution when reporting on Iran.”
The CCP is not normal, either. It didn’t send tanks to flatten protesters last week only because the regime has found a better way to crack down on dissent without the “unpleasant” visuals of protesters dying in broad daylight. In recent years, Beijing has perfected its surveillance tools in Xinjiang against the Uyghurs. By persecuting Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists under a dubious national security law, the Chinese authorities have not only silenced the city’s political dissent but also established the illusion that the CCP practices “rule by law.”
Beijing has already deployed these tactics to identify and intimidate protesters. Additionally, Covid-tracking QR codes that every Chinese citizen was forced to download on their phones to “track not only their COVID-19 risk status, but also their minute-by-minute movements — where they go, how they travel, and the people they encounter — data that is available to police.” Even if not all of these protesters end up in jail, the omnipresent social credit system will ensure they live a miserable life, unable to travel, find employment, open a bank account, or even own a pet.
If the corporate media truly care about maintaining their credibility and striving to support people who live in authoritarian regimes who yearn for freedom and democracy, they need to develop an understanding of these authoritarian regimes and understand that tyrants do not compromise. Corporate journalists must stop passing on these regimes’ disinformation, no matter how well it fits their preferred narratives. They must also find the decency to apologize and retract reporting when proven wrong.