Biased Journalism in The Guardian

Posted: June 15, 2010

By Ali Safavi

On June 7, the British daily The Guardian published a piece about the massacre of thousands of political prisoners in Iran in the late 1980s. Little did the author know that Guardian editors had taken it upon themselves to conveniently change some of the wording in the article, which would not only distort the author's views but also tarnish the ideals and character of the main victims of this heinous massacre.

It was, frankly, a betrayal of public trust and a grotesque example of how some editors freely sacrifice journalistic principles for slimy politics. And, it was also shockingly bizarre and embarrassing because they did such a poor job at it. As a result, they had to admit to the "editing change" in their "Corrections and Clarifications" column 3 days later.

The comment piece entitled "The UN Must Try Iran's 1988 Murderers" was penned by renowned legal expert Geoffrey Robertson, who had published a 148-page report about the issue. Robertson had served as the first President and Appeal Judge in the UN War Crimes Court in Sierra Leone.

In his article, Mr. Robertson points out that in the summer of 1988, "Iran's prisons were full of students sentenced to death for protesting against Ayatollah Khomeini in the early 1980s." These included leftists, Marxists, as well as supporters of the main opposition, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (PMOI/MEK). Prison officials sorted them into groups of those who remained "steadfast" in their political beliefs, the author points out. Then, the regime "decided they should be eradicated" and "Khomeini issued a secret fatwa authorizing their execution."

In 2000, Khomeini's former heir, the late Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, who was dismissed for protesting to the executions, published Khomeini's hand-written fatwa in his memoirs. The fatwa had specifically called for the immediate eradication of all imprisoned "hypocrites" who remained "steadfast" (the exact wording used in Mr. Robertson's piece) on their political views. "Hypocrite" is a pejorative term used by the regime to refer to the MEK, who Khomeini claimed were not genuine in their belief in Islam as opposed to the ruling clerics who bore the exclusive right to claim loyalty to the religion.

As a result of the 1988 massacre, which rights groups like Amnesty International have rightly referred to as an instance of "crimes against humanity," more than 30,000 members and supporters of the MEK lost their lives. Young girls, old parents, students, workers, and many of those who had already finished their sentences prior to 1988, were among those who vanished in the span of a few months. Their bodies were dumped into mass graves, including in Khavaran Cemetery near Tehran.

In his article, Mr. Robertson, had called the MEK, which was the main victim of the 1988 massacre, a movement "with a different version of Islam" than the ruling clerics' interpretation. Indeed, as I have argued before, the group is committed to a tolerant and democratic interpretation of Islam that has individual choice as its basis and respects popular elections as the sole criterion for a government's legitimacy. The ruling clerics, on the other hand, exploit Islam to safeguard their illegitimate dictatorship.

Unbeknown to Robertson, however, the editors at The Guardian took out the red pen and brazenly changed the wording regarding the MEK to say: "a guerrilla Sunni-Marxist movement," which incidentally is a label used by the regime to disparage the organization in the public eye. Such a dramatic change cannot simply be seen as a mistake but a deliberate distortion for which The Guardian is obliged to provide a better explanation. In fact, as those familiar with Marxism and Islam can quickly decipher, an "Islamic-Marxist" label is a contradiction in terms, as I have previously explained in a Reality Check piece. Also, anyone remotely familiar with Iranian politics knows that in the primarily Shiite country of Iran, the MEK's ideology is based on Shiite Islam.

The Guardian's slanted approach in this case raises concerns about its attitude toward Iran's main opposition, the MEK. It has a history of publishing anti-MEK propaganda. What make this deliberate distortion unfortunate is that the paper is so intent on using Tehran's terminology when referring to the MEK, that it goes so far as mimicking the regime's "journalistic" (read: propaganda) practices, painting the MEK with the clerics' used brush. Worse still, it actually distorts an independent investigator's report to mischaracterize the MEK. After this, short of an adequate clarification, can The Guardian really be trusted in writing about the Iranian opposition in the future?

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