Iran Tricks Journalists to Launch Online Disinformation Campaign

Recently Facebook and Twitter revealed they had removed a network of accounts linked to the Iranian government. They had attempted to launch an online Disinformation campaign.

Microsoft said it seized 99 websites used by Iranian hackers to steal sensitive information and launch other cyber attacks.

The company said the group, which it has been tracking since 2013, tried to snoop on activists, journalists, political dissidents, defense industry workers and others in the Middle East, including some who were “protesting oppressive regimes” in the region.

Hackers did so by tricking people in those organizations to click on malicious links disguised to resemble well-known brands, including Microsoft and its LinkedIn, Outlook and Windows products, Microsoft said in court filings.

In another event, a German court ordered Spiegel to urgently remove two defamations about the People’s Mojahedin.

der speigl - part of online Disinformation campaign

Online Disinformation Campaign

The German magazine Der Spiegel was summonsed by a Hamburg court. The summons requested urgent withdrawal of two defamatory stories about the People’s Mojahedin.

“A court in Hamburg, Germany, has just ordered the weekly Der Spiegel to remove from its article of 16 February 2019 two defamations targeting the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI or in Persian, MeK) and its members in Albania.”

The magazine was informed of the court’s decision on March 22. According to the sentence, Spiegel must remove the two defamations within 24 hours of its February 16, 2019 issue, failing which the magazine would be liable to a fine of up to €250,000 or a six-month prison sentence. The magazine complied within 24 hours and removed the defamations in question from its German and English PDF version on its website.

On February 16, in the aftermath of two major Iranian demonstrations in Warsaw and the Munich Summit (February 16-18), Der Spiegel magazine published an article full of gross defamation against the PMOI and its members in Albania.

The office of the National Council of Iranian Resistance (NCRI) in Germany responded to this article by filing a civil suit in a court in Hamburg. The NCRI requested an urgent action to remove two of these defamations while preserving its right to pursue in a normal judicial procedure the other false allegations contained in the article.

On March 5, 2019, in an email sent to NCRI’s lawyer in Germany, Der Spiegel wrote that the NCRI had no right to file a complaint about this article. But on 21 March, a Hamburg court on which three judges were sitting rejected the magazine’s claim and handed down its sentence after considering the two urgent motions filed by the NCRI.

The award confirms that “the plaintiff has suffered damages” as a result of this article, and that the NCRI Berlin office is entitled to bring a civil action, as its scope also includes WIPO’s activities in Germany.

The two defamations that were the subject of an urgent action in the complaint of the German office of the NCRI are two sentences of the article that claim that “some defectors talk about torture” and that “many Mujahideen train three times a week to slit their throats with a knife, enucleate with their fingers and tear off their mouths” (sic).

In both cases, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiff. In the first case, the award states that “the civil party has demonstrated that the claim is incorrect.”

“The principles of journalism regarding a suspicion have been violated because WIPO has not been questioned about it,” the court said in the second case.

The defamations in the Spiegel were largely relayed by the clerical regime.

Iran Official Media Amplifies Defamation

The February 16 article in the Spiegel was widely reported by the state media in Iran. The Mehr News Agency and the daily newspaper Khorasan have titled “Three times a week, the Mujahideen train to slit their throats with a knife.” The Fars Agency, close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, dedicated its front page to the “Report of the Spiegel of the Mujahideen camp: Members of this organization are training to kill.” The Mizan News Agency, affiliated to the judiciary, has titled “In Albania, the Mujahideen train to slit their throats with a knife, enucleate and pull out their mouths.” The Hamiane Velayat website has titled “Spiegel’s shocking report on the savagery of the Mujahideen.” Hundreds of other media outlets reported this article with similar titles.

The article has even been used as an alibi by some members of the regime’s parliament, such as Allahyar Malekshahi, who referred to it to claim that the PMOI is training for terrorist acts in the heart of Europe. It must be acknowledged that such claims are very useful in Tehran to cover the many State terrorism cases circulating in several European countries.

Since PMOI members withdrew from Iraq, where they suffered several massacres of Tehran’s henchmen, to settle in Albania, and especially after the widespread uprisings of December 2017 and the failure of the policy of complacency, the Iranian clerical regime has sought to escape its crises by multiplying, at astronomical cost, campaigns of denigration and misinformation against the Iranian resistance movement.

Iran’s online disinformation campaigns aim to persuade Western interlocutors that the people’s Mujahideen are worse than the religious dictatorship in place. They intimate that there is no alternation possible in Iran and it is better to support the government in place.

Hassan Mahmoudi is a human rights advocate and Social Media journalist seeking democracy for Iran and peace for the region.