Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps, already an economic, political and military power, is quietly pushing into a new domain: the media.
By March, the Revolutionary Guards plan to launch Atlas, a news agency modeled on services such as the Associated Press and the British Broadcasting Corp., according to semiofficial Iranian news sites. The move comes as the Guards are increasing control over the conservative Fars News Agency, which has become the mouthpiece of the Iranian regime. Fars denies that it is linked to the Guards.
On Thursday, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Naqdi, the head of the Basij, a Revolutionary Guard volunteer task force, announced what he called a new era of “super media power” cooperation between the media and the Revolutionary Guards, according to official Iranian news outlets.
Analysts say the Guards aim to control the official account of events coming out of Iran and offer a counternarrative to reports published by independent and reformist media outlets.
The Guards “want to dominate the flow of information and be the ones telling the world what’s going on in Iran,” says Omid Memarian, a dissident journalist who now lives in the U.S. and who did his military service with the Guards.
Last week, the government awarded Fars first place for best news agency at Iran’s annual media fair. At the same time, it has shut down reformist newspapers and Web sites. On Monday, business newspaper Sarmayeh, which has been critical of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s economic policies, was shut down. The official IRNA news agency said the daily was closed because its content strayed from business topics.
The Revolutionary Guards, created shortly after the 1979 revolution, have increased their influence since 2005 during the administration of President Ahmadinejad, himself a former member. The government’s current slate of cabinet ministers, provincial governors, ambassadors and lawmakers draws heavily from former members or commanders of the Guards.
In October, a business unit of the Guards bought 51% of the shares of Iran’s Telecommunications Co. from the government for about $8 billion, effectively gaining control of the country’s telephone landlines, all Internet providers and two mobile-phone companies. (The government directly owns the rest of the company.)
The Guards control Iran’s strategic long-range missiles and have business holdings in sectors from oil and gas to construction, shipping and telecommunications. When unrest erupted across Iran after the disputed re-election of Mr. Ahmadinejad in June, the Guards were responsible for a crackdown to restore security.
In September, two Fars News Agency photographers, Javad Moghimi, 24 years old, and Hossein Salmanzadeh, 34, fled to Turkey and requested asylum. Their account of the Guards’ presence at Fars offers insight into the force’s media connections.
The two men say they left Iran after receiving a warning from Fars News’ managing editor, a former Revolutionary Guards commander, following pictures they took of opposition protests. Both men say they were taking pictures anonymously and selling them to foreign agencies abroad.
“We were insiders defying orders to not cover opposition gatherings. They considered what we did treason,” says Mr. Moghimi, whose picture of a demonstration in Tehran made the cover of Time magazine in June.
Experts say Fars News content closely mirrors the tone and language of the Revolutionary Guard weekly magazine, Sobh-e-Sadegh. The agency’s top editors and editorial board are all former Guard commanders. Fars is housed in a building owned by the Guards in central Tehran that was previously the headquarters of the force’s intelligence unit.
Fars News Agency’s head of public relations, who gave his name as Mr. Salehi, denied when reached by phone in Tehran that the agency was affiliated with the government or the Revolutionary Guards, but declined to elaborate.
Mr. Moghimi and Mr. Salmanzadeh joined Fars when it was created, about seven years ago. The Guard presence has become more visible during Mr. Ahmadinejad’s administration, says Mr. Salmanzadeh, who was the agency’s deputy photo editor. Many editors were removed, including top management, and Guard members with no journalism experience took their positions, Mr. Salmanzadeh and other people familiar with the situation say.
The new management put editorial restrictions on the staff, the two photographers say. Reporters had to write favorable pieces about the government, and photographers had to angle their camera lenses to show bigger crowds during pro-government rallies, they say. Staff were banned from covering Christmas because it promoted Christianity, and couldn’t take pictures of Turkish whirling dervishes because they promote mystical Islam, the photographers and others say, and pictures of women were allowed only if the women were properly veiled.
Journalists from Fars News took part in interrogating dissidents, according to several dissidents who say there were journalists present jotting notes in a corner during the dissidents’ interrogations in 2007.
This past spring, in the months leading up to the June presidential election, Fars created a “journalism center,” Tavana Club, to train young, hard-line Basij volunteers, according to Iranian media. In July, as protests against the June election results intensified, Fars fired 39 independent reporters from its staff for not being in line with the organization’s new policies, and replaced them with the newly trained hard-liners, according to Iranian media reports.
Fars declined to comment on the dismissals. The Fars Web site added an icon to its home page titled “the Velvet Revolution,” with daily updates explaining how the opposition was funded and orchestrated by Western countries, including the U.S. and the U.K.
Mr. Moghimi and Mr. Salmanzadeh left Iran separately in early September, without saying goodbye to their families, after the warning from Fars News’ managing editor.
The two men now live as refugees in a tiny apartment in a small town in central Turkey with little furniture and no heat. They have applied for asylum at the Ankara offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
“The Revolutionary Guard now understands that political power is interconnected to media power, and they want to control public opinion,” says Ali Alfoneh, a visiting research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, who has studied the Guards extensively.