A man wearing a mask reads a copy of the Kayhan newspaper, considered to be the mouthpiece of ultraconservatives in Iran. Photo: AFP

RASHT — Iran’s official coronavirus death toll, which topped 20,000 on Monday, is under domestic scrutiny after a reformist newspaper was shuttered for suggesting the real toll was 20 times higher.

On August 10, Iran’s Press Supervisory Board issued an order temporarily revoking the publishing license of the Jahan-e Sanat newspaper, which has been in print since 2004.

The reason cited for the decision was an interview run by the paper the previous day titled “No Trust in the Government’s Statistics”, in which an epidemiologist alleged the real coronavirus fatality numbers could be at least 20 times higher than the government’s official tally.

The official toll as of Monday was 20,643 deaths and 358,905 confirmed cases.

Mohammad Reza Mahboobfar, the epidemiologist the newspaper featured as a member of Iran’s anti-coronavirus taskforce, contended that the virus was detected in Iran one month earlier than February 19, when the government confirmed the first case of infection in the city of Qom.

He alleged that the authorities refused to make the announcement in order to allow a high turnout for February 11 rallies marking the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution and for the February 21 parliamentary elections.

Fears about a deadly pandemic could have compelled the government to order people confined to their homes.

According to Mahboobfar, “the administration resorted to secrecy for political and security reasons,” asserting that the official Covid-19 death toll was nothing but “engineered statistics” fed to the public.

Newspapers on sale in the capital Tehran. Photo: AFP/Atta Kenare

‘An irresponsible act’

Ignacio Miguel Delgado, the Middle East and North Africa representative of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, deplored the ban and termed it irresponsible: “This latest move to target a newspaper for reporting on Covid-19 is an irresponsible act in the face of the biggest public health crisis of our time.

“The closure of Jahane Sanat is an unfortunate continuation of Iran’s long practice of suppressing information to the detriment of the Iranian people’s well-being.”

The Coalition For Women In Journalism also said in a statement that it was disturbed by the “arbitrary suppression of the free flow of information” reflected in the verdict to close down the economic newspaper in Tehran, adding that “shutting down Jahane Sanat … constitutes a threat towards the livelihood of journalists who will have to survive the pandemic without a job and economic security.”

Newspaper closures have become routine in Iran, and journalists are among the most vulnerable communities that have to walk the tightrope of enlightening the public at the same time as being cognizant of numerous unwritten red lines exacted by society and various government and non-governmental agencies while making ends meet.

Marziye Mahmoodi, an economic journalist in Tehran, says there is, in effect, no independent press in Iran: “There are no independent media in Iran. This lack of independence is not an issue arising from this government or this establishment.

“Since the time of Mohammad Shah Qajar in 1834 up to now, media in Iran have been dominated by the governments and cajoling.”

All the same, the majority of newspaper closures are ordered by the judiciary, which functions independently of the administration of the elected president.

This recent ruling on the Jahan-e Sanat newspaper was controversial because it was decided by a supervisory panel under the umbrella of President Rouhani’s Ministry of Culture.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Photo: AFP/Anadolu Agency

‘Pseudo-securitized approach’

Print media in Iran are often banned when they touch upon sensitive political, security and religious issues or report critically of the country’s leadership and high authorities.

In 2008, the popular reformist newspaper Kargozaran was banned for publishing a statement by a student movement, in which the Palestinian group Hamas was criticized for fanning the flames of hostility with Israel and using kindergartens and hospitals as human shields when firing rockets into Israeli cities.

At that time, an official at the Ministry of Culture asserted the newspaper “whitewashed the dehumanizing crimes” of Israel while “considering the Palestinian defenders a terrorist cult.”

Hamas, a Sunni Islamic Palestinian militant group, is the de facto governing authority of the Gaza Strip and a staunch ally of the Islamic Republic.

In October 2013 Bahar, a leading pro-reform newspaper, was shut down after running an opinion piece in which the author argued the religious role of the first Shia Imam Ali outstripped his political role. This contradicts the reading of political Islam as promulgated by Iran’s Shia jurists.

Then Minister of Culture Ali Jannati had accused the newspaper of “distorting the history of Islam” and “creating religious divisions in the country.”

But this time, a major newspaper was closed down without an overt political, security or religious reason. Rather, a critical statement on the public appearance of a health emergency was the trigger for the punitive action. What could be the reasons?

An Iranian woman wearing a face shield walks along a street in the capital Tehran on August 9, 2020. Photo: AFP/Atta Kenare

Coronavirus crisis

Masoud Rafiei Taleghani, the editor-in-chief of Eghtesad Saramad daily, says the government in Iran views the coronavirus crisis as a security matter and this explains its decision to ban Jahan-e Sanat.

“What blighted Jahan-e Sanat newspaper is the pseudo-securitized approach of the government to the coronavirus pandemic, which has been in place since the day one of the eruption of this virus in the country,” he told Asia Times.

“As long as this is the dominant worldview of the government officials and other stakeholders dealing with the health crisis, not only Jahan-e Sanat but every media outlet that discusses the figures without censorship might face the same backlash.”

Taleghani believes President Rouhani has not followed through on his campaign trail promise to grant greater freedoms to the media since taking office.

“The closing down of Jahan-e Sanat and the sort of response given to the media and individuals who have spoken out about the coronavirus pandemic signify that the president has drifted far apart from the promises he made during the presidential campaign season,” he said.

“I sometimes happen to think that we had not known Mr Rouhani properly and our imaginations about openings we expected he would introduce were entirely flawed,” Taleghani added.

But in the eyes of Mahmoodi, “the administration is facing an array of political and social challenges, and it is highly unlikely that it has sufficient motivation to live up to its promises or resist its rivals at home.”

Iran, one of the first global countries to be hit by Covid-19, remains a hotspot of contagion in the Middle East with 19,804 deaths and 345,450 confirmed cases as of Tuesday.

Rouhani has been in hot water for his government’s perceived as bungled response. His critics censure him for failing to enforce effective lockdowns and not being able to bolster frontline medical workers.

More than 10,000 healthcare workers across Iran have contracted the coronavirus. Health Minister Saeed Namaki over the weekend announced 164 Iranian healthcare professionals have died of coronavirus since the eruption of the pandemic, rendering Iran one of the top three countries in terms of medical staff fatalities.

Iranian women wearing protective gear amid the Covid-19 pandemic shop at the Tajrish Bazaar market in the capital Tehran on July 14, 2020. Photo: AFP/Atta Kenare

Even though the government made wearing protective face masks obligatory on July 5 and conditioned the provision of services to citizens at government offices on their wearing masks, there are no penalties imposed for not observing the requirement and no protocols to oversee compliance.

Many people continue to walk around the streets and enter shops, restaurants and offices without masks.

Different sources have questioned the official death toll announced by Iran’s Ministry of Health. In particular, a BBC Persian investigative report said the actual mortality rate is likely three times higher than what was announced.

“In dealing with the coronavirus crisis, the government could raise public awareness through media and alarm the public about the acuteness of the situation,” Mahmoodi said.

“As a result, it could convince people to stay at home and ditch unnecessary trips. But it didn’t opt for this course and six months after the epidemic started, people continue to receive updates and information from unofficial sources, and gossip is considered a more reliable source.

“This is indicative of the government’s incorrect use of the media,” added Mahmoodi.