Reporting Iran's News, but Speaking for One Side

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Correction Appended

TEHRAN -- So there was Iran's semiofficial Fars news agency, once the dedicated defender of the Israel-bashing, Holocaust-denying former Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, being singled out for praise on Thursday by The Wall Street Journal's staunchly conservative, Israel-defending, Iran-distrusting editorial page.

At issue were remarks to CNN on Wednesday by the current Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, in which he was quoted by an interpreter as describing the Holocaust as a "crime that the Nazis committed towards the Jews," and calling it "reprehensible." But Fars quickly jumped in, saying the that translation was wrong, and that Mr. Rouhani had not specifically used the word "Holocaust."

Giving Fars "points for honesty," The Journal's editorial jumped on the discrepancy to raise questions about the sincerity behind Mr. Rouhani's recent diplomatic charm offensive.

Weeks earlier, after Mr. Rouhani's well-wishing Twitter message to the world's Jews on Rosh Hashana, Fars had also delighted American neoconservatives -- suspicious of Mr. Rouhani's motives in reaching out to the West -- by reporting that the message came from the president's aides, not from Mr. Rouhani himself.

In Iran's news media landscape, which is divided into two camps, the hard-liners and reformists, Fars has emerged in recent years as the most influential conservative voice. It is directly linked to the Revolutionary Guards, the country's elite military unit. Its editor for years was Hamid Reza Moghadam Far, now a deputy commander in the Revolutionary Guards.

Along with the conservative daily newspaper Keyhan, Fars is widely considered a mouthpiece for the governing establishment of hard-line clerics and commanders. When its relations soured with Mr. Ahmadinejad two years ago, for example, Fars began attacking him mercilessly.

Mindful of those connections, journalists working for reformist outlets avoided reporters from Fars, who could safely criticize their opponents, knowing they were untouchable. Along with Keyhan, Fars would lead campaigns against people and institutions deemed to be out of line with the conservative governing establishment.

The two have also defined some delicate subjects in the Iranian system, one of those being the Holocaust. Fars supported a conference in 2006 that provided a platform for Holocaust-denying figures like David Duke and the historian David Irving to freely speak their minds on the subject.

In the current Holocaust controversy, Fars reporters said they were just trying to correct CNN's mistranslation of the Iranian president during the interview, which was conducted by Christiane Amanpour. "Journalists are there to correct mistakes," said Mostafa Afzalzadeh, who formerly worked for the agency. "If Mrs. Amanpour is ready to say that this was her translator's fault and not hers, we will gladly publish that on Fars."

Iran's hard-liners have no patience with Ms. Amanpour, who is British-Iranian and, in their minds, deeply biased against the country. But Mr. Afzalzadeh denied those feelings had anything to do with the agency's coverage.

"We are not partisan, nor are we the Iranian version of Fox News," he said in an interview. "We are just doing our journalistic duty."

Close advisers to Mr. Rouhani were not amused by the debate over his words, saying that the presidential team had sought to distance the current administration from Mr. Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denials.

"This agency, which is not important, is trying to kick up a storm over nothing," said Saeed Laylaz, an economist who is close to the administration, but who spent time in prison during Mr. Ahmadinejad's last term, accused of having endangered the state.

"In the interview, Rouhani repeatedly condemns the crimes against the Jews," Mr. Laylaz said. "This means he condemns the Holocaust," even if he did not exactly use the word. Naturally, the president, who is walking a tightrope between the hopes of his voters and the knives of the hard-liners, had to choose his words carefully, Mr. Laylaz said.

In Iran's news media and political landscape of factional warfare, politicians are virtually forced to be ambiguous on delicate subjects, he said. "Had he specifically said 'Holocaust' and 'genocide,' they would attack him even harder."

Correction: September 27, 2013, Friday

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article included an outdated reference to Mostafa Afzalzadeh. He no longer works for the Fars News Agency; he left in April.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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