June 6, 2013 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Advice for foreign reporters trying to cover censored elections

Media freedom has been crushed and, aside from websites that support the Supreme Leader, Internet access has been blocked, including sites belonging to senior government officials. And to top it all, the authorities are now trying to discourage foreign journalists from coming to Iran.

200 visa requests “closely examined”

Last week, culture and Islamic guidance minister Mohammad Hosseini asked the intelligence ministry to “closely examine visa applications by foreign journalists wanting to cover the 14 June presidential election so that, contrary to what happened during the last election, Zionist spies are prevented from coming to Iran.” This request followed an announcement by the foreign media chief in the culture and Islamic guidance ministry on 18 May that “200 journalists from 105 media and 26 countries have filed applications for visas to cover the election.” The minister’s request was intended to discourage foreign journalists from coming or, if they do come, to put pressure on them not to stray from the official line imposed by the regime. The ministry of culture and Islamic guidance is represented on a committee, along with officials from three other ministries (intelligence, interior and foreign affairs), which decides which journalists will be granted visas.

Vital reporting

As news agencies in Iran cannot tackle sensitive subjects and are obliged to employ a number of so-called “journalists” who are in fact intelligence officers, foreign media coverage of the persecution of Iranian journalists and civil society is a matter of great importance. “We hope that the foreign journalists who manage to get into Iran will use the opportunity offered by the elections to inform the rest of the world about the government’s suppression of fundamental freedoms, including freedom of information,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We hope they will provide as much coverage as possible of the ordeal of Iran’s imprisoned journalists.Unlike their Iranian colleagues, foreign reporters will be able to interview the families of the 54 journalists and netizens currently detained. This is a unique opportunity to remind the international community that Iranians have been jailed for years just for exercising their fundamental right to inform their fellow citizens.Two of the last election’s presidential candidates – Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister and owner of the now closed newspaper Kalameh Sabaz, and Mehdi Karoubi, former parliamentary speaker and owner of the closed newspaper Etemad Melli – have been detained since 24 February 2011. Mousavi’s wife, the best-selling writer Zahra Rahnavard, is being held with him.They are under house arrest and denied all their rights. Nonetheless, government officials have insisted that they are free. If that this the case, journalists should be able to meet with them and talk to them.

Election marked by threats

Because of infighting among the regime’s rival factions and tension with the international community, this election is already characterized by threats and fear. Between 17 and 27 May, nine daily newspapers – Bahar, Tabnak, Hezbollah, Kayhan, Vatan Emrooz, Sharvand, Iran, Haft Sobeh and Madromsalari – received warnings from the Press Authorization and Surveillance Commission, the censorship wing of the culture and Islamic guidance ministry. According to Iran’s media law, “a warning is the first step towards suspension.” The website of Madromsalari, which is owned by Mostafa Kavakabian, one of the candidates barred by the Guardian Council, and two conservative websites, Ibnanews and Seratnews, have already been closed on the orders of a "working group that combats criminal content.”

You are entering a country that is an “Enemy of the Internet”

All foreign journalists will be housed at the Laleh International Hotel, where they will have an Internet connection that is subject to close surveillance, like the rest of the Iranian Internet. Iran is on the Reporters Without Borders list of “Enemies of the Internet” and was one of the five countries named in a recent RWB report on surveillance. What follows is a list of basic protective measures that foreign journalists should take while in Iran.

Before leaving

- If possible, travel with a virgin computer. Ideally, you should completely reinstall your operating system (Window, OS X or Linux). - If you need to take files with you on your computer, take only those that will be absolutely necessary while you are there and encrypt them using PGP or TrueCrypt, which is simpler to use. - Update your operating system and, while you are there, don’t accept any updates even if Windows ask you to. - Turn on your firewall (software that blocks unwanted incoming and outgoing connections, allowing your to ward off some kinds of intrusion). - Install antivirus software and make sure it is updated with the latest virus definitions. - Protect your computer and mobile phones with passwords. They will help to deny access to your work. - Encrypt your hard drive. Protecting your computer and mobile phone with passwords is pointless if you do not also encrypt your entire hard disk. In Windows, use Bitlocker or TrueCrypt. In Apple Mac’s OS X, use FileVault (Preferences > System > Security). - Install a VPN, which is an application that allows you to establish an encrypted communication tunnel between your computer and a server located outside the country. Using a VPN will make it extremely difficult to intercept your communications. It will also enable you to circumvent any blocking of websites and online services imposed by the authorities. You should install a VPN before you go because unofficial VPNs, meaning those not controlled by the regime, are banned in Iran and access to sites offering unofficial VPNs is blocked.

Measures to take while in Iran

Good “electronic hygiene” should be practiced to avoid installing any malware on your computer: - Don’t click on links sent by a stranger. - Don’t download any software if you don’t know where it comes from. - Don’t accept contact requests from strangers on social networks. - Always identify the sender of an email before opening any attachments. - When you connect to the Internet, always use your previously installed VPN. - Secure your browsing by using the https protocol. It prevents your website passwords from being visible on the network. - Don’t use Skype to sent sensitive information. The confidentiality of communication via Skype is not guaranteed and, because of its widespread use, Skype is the target of a great deal of malware. - Encrypt your communications. Email is often intercepted in Iran. To guarantee the confidentiality of the messages you exchange with your editors, encrypt your emails with PGP or encrypt your chats with Pidgin and the OTR plugin. - The sending of an encrypted email is visible on the network. Although the regime may not be able to access the content of an encrypted email, it may know who sent it and to whom it was sent. Take care when you send an encrypted email. Take account of the situation of the person you are emailing. - Create one or two email address that are not associated with the media that you work for, and use only these addresses. As a result, your emails will be more discreet and will be more likely to pass unnoticed by the authorities. - You can also send your emails to a specially-created email address, from which they can be removed by a trusted third party with password access and forwarded to their final destination from another email address. This will protect the identity of the recipients of your emails while you are inside Iran.

In the event of Internet cuts or drastic slowdowns

It is not uncommon for the Internet to get much slower during demonstrations or in the run-up to major events. But Internet slowdowns or cuts do not last long. Keep filming or writing and store your work on an encrypted USB flash drive (encrypted with TrueCrypt, for example). A USB stick is easier to conceal and carry than a computer. You can use a satellite connection to send your work but, be careful, because satellite transmissions are easily spotted. Don’t stay too long in the same place while transmitting files. Change location frequently. If you must sent big files, send them in stages. There is software than can break a big file down into smaller parts.

Mobile phones

Your mobile phone contains a lot of important information. Iran’s two main mobile phone service operators, Mobile Communication Company of Iran and Irancell, are controlled by the Revolutionary Guards. As well as data sent or received, you mobile phone or smartphone has a lot of information on the SIM card, its internal memory and any memory card that may be installed. - Protect your phone with a password, if it has this feature. All SIM cards have a PIN installed by default. Change it and block access to your SIM card with this SIM code. - If your phone uses the Android operating system, you can use the many applications created by the Guardian Project and Whispersys to encrypt your browsing, chats, SMS and voice messages. - Turn off GPS in the apps that use it. But make sure that someone is kept abreast of your movements. - If possible, don’t keep any browsing history. If you are in country that monitors mobile phones or if you think you are under close surveillance because of your activities, it is better not to use a mobile phone to communicate. Use face-to-face meetings instead. - If you want to keep your phone with you even during sensitive meetings, remove the battery before going. Even without a SIM card, mobile phones send a lot of information (IMEI, IMSI or TMSI numbers and network cell) to nearby relay antennae that allows them to be located. Using IMSI catcher software, the authorities can intercept these signals and locate a previously identified SIM card holder. Unfortunately, a battery cannot be removed from an iPhone.