TEHRAN – Give foreign journalists a good impression of Iran, even if it means lying or mistranslating Iranians' words, Mohammad-Hossein Khoshvaght, head of Iran's international press bureau told translators in a series of recent meetings.
Khosvaght, who works under the auspices of the ostensibly reformist Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance, has been giving regular pep-talks to groups of translators in preparation for the arrival of 200 international journalists coming to cover the Islamic Republic's 25th birthday and its 7th parliamentary elections.
“I want you to give a realistic image of Iran,” he told the translators gathered in his office earlier this week. “If a woman starts saying that her lipstick is a sign of revolution, just don't translate it. Say it's nonsense.”
Khoshvaght, a relative by marriage to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told the translators to inform him if any arriving journalists try to cover sensitive stories such as about student activists or political dissidents or if they request to work without a translator for a day.
He told them not to allow the foreign journalists to come to their homes. He suggested that all of the journalists' phone calls would be monitored by intelligence services.
“These days are very tough days,” he told the translators. “The security of the regime is threatened. You shouldn't do anything that threatens the security of the system.”
The translators are all hired through several private fixer firms and are not ministry employees. Translators in Saddam Hussein-era Iraq were often required to perform such “minder” services. Foreign correspodents in Iran were also closely monitored during the first two decades after the 1979 revolution. They enjoyed a brief period of freedom following the 1997 election of reformist President Mohamad Khatami.
But despite opneing its doors for journalists entering to cover the recent earthquake in Bam, Iran's clerical regime appears to have begun clamping down hard on foreign correspondents, denying visas to some and press cards to others.
In the recent past, authorities linked to Iran's complex of intelligence services have also pressed journalists into performing espionage, demanding that they monitor the activities of fellow journalists and regularly report on their activities as well as their sources' comments.
But Khoshvaght, a former Rome bureau chief of the Islamic Republic News Agency fluent in Italian and English, has often come to the defense of foreign correspondents. Recently he publicly decried the ultra-conservative judiciary's attempts at confiscating the files of foreign correspondents. He showed a level candor rare for Iranian officials following the alleged murder of Iranian-Canadian foreign journalist Zahra Kazemi by official security forces.