After the debacle with Judith Miller, it seems as if the New York Times is a little bit more careful about publishing articles by journalists who have little informed knowledge about the foreign culture they are reporting about. Because journalist Neil MacFarquhar does not read Farsi, for his front-page article published on Sunday, June 24 in the New York Times, he dependent on an interview with an unnamed source with an open political agenda for details about events in Iran. The photograph used in the story, “Iran Cracks Down on Dissent,” was misleading.
While disturbing on its own right, the picture had nothing to do with current crack down on dissent. The episode depicted in the photograph happened in late May as part of Tehran's Police Department anti-corruption project to secure the safety of “rough neighborhoods” in the southern part of the city. Those who were paraded in public, as shown in the picture, had nothing to do with “western style clothing or haircuts,” as Neil MacFarquhar asserted. They were thugs and drug dealers who had terrorized these neighborhoods.
After the publication of these pictures, the Tehran Police Chief acknowledged that the methods used in these operations were unjustified. While residents of those neighborhoods supported the crack down on gang members, they were also scandalized by the disgusting public humiliation of these thugs perpetrated by the police.
After I (and hopefully others) sent the Times a letter to complain, the editors published the following correction on June 25, 2007:
“A front-page article yesterday described a crackdown in Iran that has included the jailing of three Iranian-Americans, repression or intimidation of nongovernment organizations pressing for broader legal rights, warnings to newspaper editors against articles on banned topics, arrests of advocates for women’s rights and of student leaders, and the detention of 150,000 people for wearing clothing considered not Islamic.
The headline over the article said that Iran was cracking down on dissent and “parading examples” in the streets, and one paragraph in the article also said that young men detained for wearing tight T-shirts or western-style haircuts had been “paraded bleeding through Tehran’s streets by uniformed police officers.” The Times caption on an official Iranian news agency photograph that ran with the article said that it showed a police officer punishing a young man in public for wearing un-Islamic clothing by forcing him to suck on a plastic container normally used for intimate hygiene, a punishment the article also asserted was for that offense.
But the man in the photograph, according to widespread Iranian news reports, was one of more than 100 people arrested recently on charges of being part of a gang that had committed rapes, robberies, forgeries and other crimes. The caption published on the Web site of the news agency, Fars, had said only that the man was being punished as part of a roundup of “thugs” in a Tehran neighborhood.
The current repression has made reporting in Iran difficult. In this case, The Times relied on an interview with a researcher for a nongovernment agency that no longer operates within Iran who said the photograph was evidence of a more visible police role in public crackdowns on what the authorities consider immoral behavior. The reporter then wrongly interpreted what the researcher said as applying to a crackdown on dress, and incorporated the erroneous interpretation into the body of the article, without giving any indication of the source for it.
These errors could have been avoided with more rigorous editing. The article should not have said that young men had been paraded through the streets for wearing un-Islamic dress, and the headline over it should not have said that dissenters were being paraded as part of the crackdown.”
While still somewhat misleading, it is much better than one could have expected.
Behrooz Ghamari is a professor of history and sociology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He can be reached at email@example.com. He is the author of the forthcoming book Islam and Dissent in Postrevolutionary Iran.