Dean Baquet, Executive Editor and the Editorial Board
The New York Times
620 Eighth Avenue Manhattan, New York 10018
Thursday 9 September 2021
Re: Farnaz Fassihi
On 6 August 2021, the New York Times (NYT) Communications issued a statement of support for Farnaz Fassihi through one tweet in response to “attacks, threats, and harassment” towards the said NYT-affiliated journalist on social media. The tweet specifically states that its support of Fassihi was taking place in the context of supporting all ‘targeted’ journalists who are ‘women’ and/or ‘people of color’.
We, the undersigned, are a representative group of Iranians from across the globe with diverse identities. Many of us are either currently in Iran or have parents and siblings who live there. Many of us, and our immediate families, are peaceful dissidents, women’s rights advocates, and conscientious objectors who live in Iran. Not only have we been victims of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s persecution, but we have also suffered at the hands of journalists and media outlets that have wittingly or unwittingly misrepresented Iranian people’s suffering under the Islamic Republic regime. Joined by other like-minded individuals, as indicated in the enclosed list of signatures, we contend that our concerns are widely shared by many within and without the Iranian community across the world.
Before proceeding further, we unequivocally condemn any form of harassment and threat against all racialized communities, people of diverse gender identities, and people of colour; in this regard, we also condemn threats in any form against Farnaz Fassihi.
The Times and Fassihi have claimed that those criticizing Fassihi’s journalism at the Times are an “army of trolls” displaying violent online behaviour. The New York Times, however, did not present any such examples of this in their tweet or in any communication. All the Times has presented so far is through Fassihi’s misrepresentations of online comments and her twisted translations of them to justify such accusations against her critics. We also express concern as to why the NYT issued only a single tweet in support of a “targeted” journalist who ranks among ‘women and people of color’, instead of allocating a full report to a matter of such gravity and importance.
In this letter, we respond to the above tweet through a case-by-case evidence-based dossier of Farnaz Fassihi’s professional infractions which include normalizing the Islamic Republic’s brutality through the obfuscation of truth in her journalism over the course of several years. The enclosed dossier consists of a selection of her NYT reports as well as her social media activities, chiefly, Twitter. In presenting our findings, we seek none but two equally fundamental objectives. First, recalling NYT’s formidable performance in the case of the Pentagon Papers, we wish that NYT as a newspaper of record continues to fulfil its mission as a global reliable source of news and in its compilation of “history’s first rough drafts” as events unfold. Second, we seek to hold Farnaz Fassihi accountable for her misrepresentation of the current state of Islamic Republic’s brutal suppression, mass killing, and imprisonment of peaceful protesters, journalists, conscientious objectors, political dissidents, and countless ordinary citizens.
Our investigation’s guiding compass is NYT’s very guidelines as stated in your Ethical Journalism Guidebook: A Handbook of Values and Practices for the News and Editorial Departments, Guidelines on Integrity, and New York Times Guidelines for Journalists’ Use of Social Media. We are convinced that a close examination of our findings stands the test of impartial judicious assessment per your guidelines.
We regret that NYT has tarnished with one feather all criticism of Fassihi’s unprofessional journalistic conduct as unworthy ‘bigoted’ diatribes of ‘anonymous trolls.’ Although we are pleased to see that NYT displays a genuine commitment to have people of diverse identities represented in the cohort of its reporters and columnists, we find NYT’s unverified accusations against Iranian Twitter users illustrative of a structural racist view within this publication against Iranian people. The declaration of support for Fassihi paints Iranians with the stale stereotypes of ‘violence and misogyny’ of Middle Eastern people. In this light, the tweet effectively acts as a “sword” against the oppressed marginalized many, and not as a “shield” in defence of the said NYT-affiliated journalist.
Based on our investigation, we are adamant that NYT’s rash declaration of support for Fassihi who consistently resorts to self-victimization tactics in the face of criticism, if left unaddressed, only serves to enable her unprofessional behaviour. In fact, we submit that her denials, counterattacks, and obfuscation of facts and criticisms, constitute a form of misogyny against many women who have objected to her unprofessional behaviour. On balance, approximately a mere 4% of Fassihi’s reporting is devoted to press freedom, women’s rights, and human rights violations in Iran, which speaks volumes as to where her journalistic priorities with respect to Iran lie. Examples of her unethical behaviour as a journalist in fact involve two of her counterparts: Masih Alinejad, and Rouhollah Zam. When Zam was kidnapped, Fassihi shared at least one tweet that was factually unsupported and unverifiable against Zam and Amad News. The tweet was also contextually misleading regarding information on Amad News on explosives. Also, when the plot to kidnap Alinejad in New York was revealed, Fassihi refused to even contact her or report on the matter.
Our findings are presented as enclosed in the following order: first, a succinct presentation of our critical framework based on NYT’s journalistic guidelines accompanied by a concise contextualization of the state of repression of protesters and journalists and the importance of factually reliable reporting of the situation in Iran; second, a presentation of the most pressing cases of unprofessional reporting by Fassihi with the relevant citation of NYT’s journalistic standards and guidelines along with a selection of tweets by Fassihi that misrepresent facts and intentionally mistranslate ‘anonymous’ and ‘non-anonymous’ users’ objections to such factual misrepresentations of hers. The dossier concludes with a detailed list of our demands. Please be kindly advised that you will a hardcopy of this letter and the enclosed material at your office by courier shortly.
Enclosed: Dossier of Findings and Demands concerning Farnaz Fassihi’s Professional Misconduct and the list of signatures
Dossier of Findings and Demands concerning Farnaz Fassihi’s Professional Misconduct
1. Our Critical Framework
Our analysis of Fassihi’s reporting and social media conduct is primarily informed by NYT’s journalistic standards and guidelines. A reminder of the repressive situation in present day Iran is a categorical imperative in this regard. We remind you that the Iranian opposition inside the country suffer from extreme state violence and oppression, and experience direct threats against their own and their loved ones’ lives. Similarly, we are experiencing a period of intensified repression against journalists and persecution of minorities and political dissidents in Iran. We further remind you that the Islamic Republic has turned Iran into a state where absence of freedom, police brutality, corrupt judicial process, ideological revolutionary courts, gender apartheid, kleptocracy, and persecution of Iranian conscientious objectors, political dissidents, LGBTQ, ex-Muslim Christians, the Baha’i community, civil society, women’s rights and labour rights activists, to name just a few of the many consistently persecuted marginalized groups, have been the norm since the advent of the regime in February 1979. Our criticism against Fassihi as an NYT-affiliated journalist is a consequence of such repression which makes the media’s narrative on Iran not only important but also a significantly delicate matter. Before labelling Iranian people as an army of anonymous trolls, we remind you that Sattar Beheshti was murdered because of his blog posts which were signed with his true identity. Sasan Niknafs was recently killed in prison after being denied medical treatment; he was arrested because of an Instagram post.
As the numerated findings below show, Fassihi has been involved in the violation of NYT’s sacrosanct commitment to “Facts and Fact Checking” where it states: “In addition to this handbook, we observe the Newsroom Integrity Statement, promulgated in 1999, which deals with such rudimentary professional practices as the importance of checking facts, the exactness of quotations, the integrity of photographs and our distaste for anonymous sourcing; and the Policy on Confidential Sources, issued in 2004.”
Following NYT’s explicit commitment that “In keeping with its solemn responsibilities under the First Amendment, The Times strives to maintain the highest standards of journalistic ethics”, we argue that Fassihi’s unprofessional reporting is not only a violation of her privileged status as a journalist in the United States but a betrayal of her counterparts in Iran who face arbitrary arrest and persecution daily. Moreover, her portrayal of Iran as a normal country shows a blatant disregard for the lived experiences of our people whose most basic rights are taken away from them.
Fassihi’s reporting and social media conduct are also in consistent violation of NYT’s integrity guidelines where it explicitly states: “Our greatest strength is the authority and reputation of The Times. We must do nothing that would undermine or dilute it and everything possible to enhance it.” In fact, our presentation submits that Fassihi’s conduct shows she misses no opportunity to undermine NYT’s reputation and authority.
2. A Selection of Instances of Professional Misconduct:
The examples of Fassihi’s numerous professional infractions are divided into two main categories: reporting and social media.
2.1. Professional Misconduct: Reporting
2.1.1. Fassihi’s 13 August 2021 NYT report: “Iran’s Health System ‘Beyond Disastrous’ From Covid Surge: The Delta variant of the coronavirus has overwhelmed the country, which has been reeling from the pandemic since it began, presenting a stark test for its new hard-line president” is a textbook example of factual obfuscation through omission and misrepresentation. The tweet thread by this non-anonymous user details the many infractions that expressly violate NYT’s commitment to fact-based reporting. Citing the tweet thread’s main contours: “Starting from the title [that is, the title of Fassihi’s report], the delta variant isn’t the reason behind Iran’s current situation, it’s the ban on [effective British and American vaccines such as] pfizer and moderna”, a ban which was explicitly decreed by Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. In her report, Fassihi does not explicitly identify Khamenei as the person responsible for the ban on western vaccines. She blames “leaders” in general as being responsible, which is a critical factual oversight and thus is a professional journalistic misconduct. In her analysis, her presentation of Khamenei’s attitude toward the crisis is that of a believer in conspiracy theories, citing only one of his many arguments against the import of vaccines which happens to be a popular one. In so doing, Fassihi fails to hold Khamenei accountable for the ban and thus, for the hundreds of thousands of covid related deaths in Iran.
2.1.2. Her 2 May 2021 NYT report “Clubhouse App Creates Space for Open Talk in the Middle East” is another example of Fassihi’s obfuscation of truth. Citing government favoured journalist, Farid Modarresi, Fassihi claims that Clubhouse, the “new app” is providing an opportunity for dialogue between people and government officials. She falsely implies that Javad Zarif (then foreign minister) took questions in a Clubhouse room indiscriminately, when in fact the room explicitly prohibited journalists from non-governmental Persian language media outlets as well as almost all ordinary citizens from asking questions. Fassihi writes:
Presidential hopefuls have staged campaign events. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has taken questions. Other speakers have included the vice president, a former commander in chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the telecommunication minister, who denied that the government was trying to block the app. “This Clubhouse has changed the polarized discourse of Iran,” said one user, Maziar Samaei, in a recent Clubhouse room. “I, as an ordinary person who never has access to any officials, can come here and listen to them.”
But perhaps more remarkable are the other users. Flushed from the geographic, social, and political echo chambers that have divided them since Iran’s 1979 revolution, ordinary Iranians inside and outside of the country, conservative and reformist politicians, clerics, dissidents and opposition activists are mingling anew.
“Iranians have not talked to each other for a while,” said Farid Modarressi, 40, a reformist-aligned journalist who hosts a popular election chat room. “On Twitter, we’ve been cursing each other. Clubhouse is making us hear the other side.”
Fassihi’s reporting that dissidents and clerics and politicians are mingling anew is false. The optimistic tone of her report that Clubhouse is increasing dialogue between dissidents and politicians and clerics belies the fact that the Islamic Republic endorsed journalists control that the rules of the rooms abide by the Islamic Republic’s laws, and they screen who is allowed to be promoted to the “stage” to ask questions, make comments, or challenge the speakers. Contrary to Fassihi’s claims, thus, the Clubhouse under the Islamic Republic is highly controlled and ideologically nepotistic. Consequently, in so misrepresenting the factual dynamics of Clubhouse, Fassihi is committing a clear infraction of NYT’s strict commitment to ‘facts and fact checking’.
2.1.3. We are deeply disturbed by the false and misleading information in Fassihi’s NYT report “Anatomy of a Lie: How Iran Covered Up the Downing of an Airliner”, 26 January 2020, wherein Fassihi states that for the first three days Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani and his administration were unaware of PS752 being shot down by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ anti-aircraft missile batteries. It is our contention that Fassihi violated NYT’s commitment to ‘facts and fact-checking’ standards by failing to conduct a thorough investigation at the time of her reporting and a follow-up investigation from her report as a plethora of newly discovered evidence within a month from the publication of her NYT report would completely shed a different light on the Islamic Republic’s culpability in this humanitarian tragedy. Fassihi also had ample opportunity to set the record straight almost a year later when the leaked audio file of then foreign minister Javad Zarif’s interview was published on Iran International and was simultaneously broadcast in their Clubhouse room. Moreover, the NYT’s code of ethical conduct clearly states NYT’s distaste for “anonymous sources.” Fassihi claims to have based her conclusion on discussions with “unnamed” sources within the Islamic Republic’s government; and not a “highly reliable confidential governmental source.” Consequently, we cannot but conclude that her reporting of this tragedy has been hitherto woeful.
On February 2, 2020, less than a month after the downing of PS752, the Ukrainian media published an audio file from a conversation between Aseman Airlines’ Shiraz-Tehran pilot and the control tower. While in the sky, the pilot and his team observed the firing of the missiles and contacted the Tehran control tower. The Tehran control tower is part of Iran’s CAO, which operates under, and reports to, Rouhani’s administration. Therefore, it is virtually impossible for Rouhani and his administration to have been unaware of PS752’s downing by an anti-aircraft missile. Moreover, as IRGC and CAO work in tandem per Islamic Republic’s government structure, the CAO and Rouhani’s administration were fully aware of the truth on January 8, 2020.
Additionally, on July 3, 2020, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reported on a 90-minute conversation between Javad Soleimani (who lost his wife Elnaz Nabiyi in the downing of flight PS752) with Hassan Rezaeifar, Iran’s lead investigator for the downing of PS752. To Javad Soleimani’s astonishment, Rezaeifar intimated that 5 minutes after he heard about the plane crash, he called Amir-Ali Hajizadeh, Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Aerospace Force, who confirmed that IRGC had engaged its anti-aircraft missile units against PS752. But, at the time, Hassan Rezaeifar, who was the Spokesperson for Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization (CAO), and Ali Abedzadeh, the Head of Iran’s CAO, refused to disclose the information to the public. In fact, they falsely claimed that the plane had crashed due to a technical issue. As CAO operates under the auspices of Islamic Republic’s Ministry of Transportation, which reports directly to Hassan Rouhani’s Cabinet, the Iranian government, and the fact that Rouhani chaired Islamic Republic’s National Security Council, it is not a far-fetched conclusion that Rouhani must have been aware of IRGC’s involvement in the downing of PS752 shortly thereafter.
Fassihi has not reported on any of these important events, while she has had many opportunities to clear up the factual ambiguities of her initial report over the past year.
2.1.4. When reporting on Qassem Soleimani’s funeral, Fassihi claimed that masses of people formed a 30 kilometre-long march in Ahvaz, while the distance between south and north of the city is less than 30 kilometres long; and the geographic ratio is not factually accurate. Her misinformation was in fact quite welcomed by the regime’s state news agency, IRNA.
2.1.5. Although many aspects of Fassihi’s reports on the November 2019 protests are difficult to establish due to Iran’s state repression and draconian censorship, the content only reaffirms the Islamic Republic’s propaganda by way of phrasal reproduction. Citing regime affiliated news agencies as well as government officials, Fassihi accuses the protesters of murdering several anti-riot forces (19 November report), and describes them as violent (21 November report) destroying public and private properties, and engaging in a “battle” against the government. Fassihi’s discourse corresponds to revolutionary prosecutors’ indictments against many protesters whose manner of arrest and prosecution is in violation of the regime’s own rules for due process. Fassihi’s description of the events turns the military-grade crackdown of unarmed protesters by the regime’s armed forces into an account of “guerrilla warfare” or some interstate conflict, akin to a Syrian-like conflict or the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. In her 21 November report, Fassihi blames the Trump administration for the economic crisis in Iran, while according to those residing inside the country, the lifting of sanctions after the nuclear deal had no impact on the economic welfare of the ordinary people. Fassihi also hints at the protests being fuelled by the then US administration which is not only a dangerous claim that could be invoked by revolutionary prosecutors to ask for a death penalty for the arrested protesters, but it also echoes Islamic Republic’s propaganda against Iranian dissidents in the past four decades.
2.2. Professional Misconduct: Social Media
2.2.1. In this file, you can find a compilation of Farnaz Fassihi’s interactions with Iranian Twitter users, including both anonymous and verified accounts of Iranian journalists and activists. In all these interactions, she uses the same rhetoric repeatedly, claiming that every individual opposing her is either displaying misogynistic behaviour or sending her death and rape threats.
2.2.3. An anonymous Twitter account compiled a thread detailing Fassihi’s unprofessional behaviour in social media as well as in her reporting as a journalist. Several parts of the thread cite instances of her unprofessionalism, her false accusations against her critics, as well as her obfuscation of truth.
3. Our Demands
Based on the above, we have compiled a list of demands whose implementation by the NYT shall ensure its continued commitment per its professional journalistic ethics and standards:
3.1. Demand for a Full Inquiry
3.1.2. Based on the facts presented in section 2 of this dossier, we demand that the NYT initiate an official investigation through a special NYT inquiry commission (the inquiry hereinafter) into Fassihi’s conduct in compliance with NYT’s internal regulations and procedures as well as NYT’s journalistic standards and guidelines and the relevant federal and state laws.
3.1.3. Any such official inquiry must publish its findings and determine whether Fassihi must amend her previous reporting and tweets to reflect the truth per its findings and/or in view of the submissions of section 2 of this dossier. Whilst preserving Fassihi’s professional and constitutional rights as a journalist, the inquiry must enunciate its professional expectations and assign a deadline for Fassihi for the correction and resubmission of the said flawed reports. The inquiry must also pay adequate attention to all corrections and ‘alerts to facts’ that Fassihi has received from many anonymous and non-anonymous users through various media platforms about her misreporting.
3.2. Immediate Remedies
3.2.1. If Fassihi rejects the findings of the inquiry and/or refuses to fully implement them, or if the inquiry establishes that halting any further damage to NYT’s integrity and reputation is warranted, then, the inquiry shall consider terminating NYT’s relationship with Fassihi effective immediately.
3.2.2. Pursuant to section 3.2.1. NYT must publish complementary reports to correct Fassihi’s misreporting and set the record straight once and for all.
3.2.3. Upon the inquiry’s establishing Fassihi’s infractions, including our submissions in section 2 of this dossier, the NYT must publicly condemn all such infractions, accept full responsibility for the said infractions, and publish a public apology to all Iranians of all stripes across the world, particularly those who have laboured to inform and correct the NYT despite NYT’s unfair tweet against them.
3.2.4. In light of our findings, we cannot but conclude that Fassihi’s conduct has been hitherto detrimental to NYT’s integrity. We also submit that our findings in section 2 of the present dossier establish that NYT’s relationship with Fassihi is no longer tenable.
3.3. Long Term Remedies
3.3.1. Setting a checks and investigation procedures to reinforce adherence ‘to facts and fact checking’ to restore NYT’s commitment to ‘factually-based analyses’ and to ensure any such divergence from truth shall not recur: Such a holistic system of checks and investigation procedures must also be applied to any and all future journalists, who may or may not have overtly public or tacit connections and/or sympathies with the Islamic Republic and its lobbyists. In so doing, NYT journalists are guaranteed unquestionable independence from such entities and repressive regimes that systematically engage in “access” peddling in order to advance their agenda and compromise the integrity of free press and any journalist who is in their employment. Such an approach may as well open a new chapter in countering the ever-expanding state propaganda and lobbying machinery by other repressive states that seek to manipulate world public opinion by various means of influence and intimidation of, and engagement in active measures operations against, reputable news media institutions.
3.3.2. A commitment to treat the reports on Iran with extra care and attention as long as the state machinery of draconian repression persists in its exercise of terror and tyranny against Iranians, and the people and the press continue to be so reprehensibly censored by the Islamic Republic’s intelligence-diplomatic-propaganda complex within Iran and around the world. To achieve this goal, it is ethically and professionally incumbent upon NYT to maintain openness towards criticism and refrain from systemic condemnation of a diverse spectrum of critics for a minority’s unacceptable misbehaviour.
4. SIGNATURES: A. Signatures of PS752 Victims’ Family Members followed by B. The signatures of concerned Iranians and other concerned individuals
A. Signatures of PS752 Victims’ family members
- Parisa Abbaszadeh
- Amineh Aghabali
- Hamid Reza Borghaee
- Ahoura Azhdari
- Azemat Azhdari
- Ashkan Davoudpour
- Navaz Ebrahim
- Parnian Eghbalian
- Hamid Reza Ghasemi
- Majid Ghasemi
- Mojtaba Ghavi
- Maral Gorginpour
- Sohrab Hooriran
- Payam Jamshidi
- Leila Latifi
- Arash Morattab
- Shahnaz Morattab
- Homa Mamani
- Shahrokh Pourzarab
- Roozbeh Roostaee
- Alborz Sadeghi
- Abdolreza Sadr
- Masoud Saeedinia
- Yasin Shafaghi
- Javad Soleimani
B. The signatures of concerned Iranians and all other concerned individuals
- Eskandar Abadi – Journalist
- Faezeh Abbasi – Journalist
- Elham Adimi – Journalist
- Bobby Afrouz – Iranian American Dentist
- Shahnaz Akmali – Civil Society Activist
- Sasan Amjadi – Kurdish researcher and activist
- Azam Bahrami – Environmental Activist
- Yavar Baradaran Khosravi – LGBTQ Activist
- Mehran Barati – Political Activist
- Farangiss Bayat – Political Analyst
- Jamshid Barzegar – Journalist
- Lawdan Bazargan – Political Activist, 1988 Massacres Family Member
- Leili Bazargan – Journalist
- Isa Bazyar – Author, Mine Sweeper
- Reza Behrouz – Iranian American Physician
- Khosrow Beytollahi – Political Activist, Iran Constitutional Party
- Adriane Calamel – American History Professor, SUNNY
- Hosein Daemi – Political Activist
- Masoomeh Daemi – Political Activist
- Naeemeh Doostdar – Journalist
- Babak Ejlali – Human Rights Activist
- Gohar Eshghi – Sattar Beheshti Foundation
- Bamdad Esmaeeli – Iranian-German Journalist (WDR)
- Shad Estedadi – Iranian Canadian, General Manager and Activist
- Amir Hosein Etemadi – Political Activist
- Mehdi Ghadimi – Journalist
- Mahnaz Ghezello – LGBTQ Activist
- Mahtab Ghorbani – Poet, Human Rights Activist
- Mahdiyeh Golrou – Women’s Rights Activist
- Shahrzad Hadian – Women’s Rights Activist
- Mehdi Hajati – Political Activist
- Mehrnaz Haji-Ali – Women’s Rights Activist
- Moloud Hajizadeh – Journalist and Women’s Rights Activist
- Mohammad Hemmatpour – Political Activist
- Nahid Husseini – Researcher in Women’s Education
- Arash Joodaki – Essayist, Political Philosophy Researcher
- Atefeh Kashefi – Lise Meitner Society, Board Member
- Monireh Kazemi – Women’s Rights Activist
- Mina Khani – Social and Queer Activist
- M .Mehdi Khorrami – University Professor
- Shahram Kholdi – Sessional Lecturer, University of Waterloo, Canada
- Hediyeh Kimiyaee – Journalist
- Behzad Mehrani – Political Activist
- Bardya Mousavi – Strategist, Journalist at Iran-TC
- Shoreh Nazar – Journalist
- Shahabedin Nazari – Political Activist
- Nima Nia – Queer Activist
- Majid Niknam – Journalist, Political Activist
- Mohammad Noori – Political Activist
- Foad Pashaei – Political Activist, Iran Constitutional Party
- Sepideh Pooraghaee – Journalist
- Ahmad Raeesi – Student Activist
- Faranak Rafiei – Researcher in Middle Eastern Studies
- Arezo Rashidian – Iranian American Healthcare Professional
- Mehdi Roozbahani – Journalist
- Arash Sadeghi – Political Activist
- Parisa Salehi – Journalist
- Samaneh Savadi – Women’s Rights Activist
- Fatemeh Sepehri – Political Activist
- Shaparak Shajarizadeh – Women’s Rights Activist
- Hassan Shariatmadari – Political Activist
- Maryam Shariatmadari – Girls of Enqelab (Revolution) Street
- Mahnaz Shirali – University Professor, Paris, France
- Yazdan Shohadaee – Political Activist
- Amin Sophiamehr – Philosophy Researcher, University of Indiana, Bloomington
- Delbar Tavakkoli – Journalist