Weary of crackdown, Iran's regime takes on citizen journalists

Covering the anti-regime protests in Iran has taken a heavy toll on journalists across the country, as the Islamic Republic wages a ruthless crackdown.

Since the protest movement erupted in September, when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in police custody after being arrested for breaching Iran's strict dress code for women, Iranian authorities have detained, injured, and killed hundreds of protesters in an effort to snuff out the demonstrations. They have also targeted journalists and the free flow of information.

PHOTO: A picture obtained by ZUMA outside Iran, reportedly shows protesters setting a fire as they clash with police on Oct. 20, 2022, in Tehran, Iran, during a protest over the death of young Iranian woman Mahsa Amini. (Stringer/ZUMA Press)
PHOTO: A picture obtained by ZUMA outside Iran, reportedly shows protesters setting a fire as they clash with police on Oct. 20, 2022, in Tehran, Iran, during a protest over the death of young Iranian woman Mahsa Amini. (Stringer/ZUMA Press)

Globally, Iran ranks as the third-worst country for press freedom, according to Reporters without Borders. Some journalists in Iran told ABC News that internet disruptions and other restrictions have made it extremely difficult to access information and sources. They said they have received death threats and that they fear their online activity is being tracked, potentially putting them and their sources in danger.

"Sometimes I am threatened [on social media that] I’ll be killed in a fake accident or even in acid attacks by unknown agents," said one Iranian journalist, whom ABC News is calling Sahar rather than her real name due to security concerns.

The perils of being a journalist in Iran

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 46 members of the press have been arrested since the protest movement began, with at least two of them -- Niloufar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi -- accused of espionage by Iranian authorities. Espionage is a serious crime in Iranian law, with punishment ranging from prison time to execution.

Sahar told ABC News that Hamedi and Mohammadi are her "friends and colleagues."

"We are so worried, we can't sleep," she said.

PHOTO: A woman looks at a picture of Iranian reporters Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi posted on twitter, in Nicosia, Cyrpus, on Nov. 2, 2022. (Christina Assi/AFP via Getty Images)
PHOTO: A woman looks at a picture of Iranian reporters Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi posted on twitter, in Nicosia, Cyrpus, on Nov. 2, 2022. (Christina Assi/AFP via Getty Images)

Both Hamedi and Mohammadi were arrested separately after reporting on Amini’s death for Iranian newspapers.

"It is tough to witness all the stories that happen around you without being able to even take a photo, because you know you'd be beaten and arrested immediately," she tearfully told ABC News, adding that she feels "useless."

That’s why Sahar relies on social media, but even there she faces online threats, disinformation and surveillance.

"The Islamic Republic has a big 'cyber army' who constantly bully independent journalists and spread disinformation to target their credibility," she said.

Citizen journalists and the fight against disinformation

With restrictions on the press, citizen journalists -- members of the public who are not professional journalists but disseminate information online -- as well as activists abroad have taken the lead in news coverage of the protests. But they face a "massive" amount of disinformation when trying to verify reports, according to Masoud Kazemi, an Iranian dissident journalist who spent years behind bars for his work and now lives in exile.

"Nothing sets the ground for disinformation more than restricting the internet and damaging the credibility of journalists," Kazemi told ABC News.

"[Iranian] intelligence services have been controlling the newsrooms over the last 10 years by assigning people close to the regime in the management and top editorial positions," he added. "Many people lost their trust in their content over the years."

PHOTO: Iranian anti-riot police forces keep watch as protesters gather in front of the German embassy in Tehran, Iran, Nov. 1, 2022. (Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA via Shutterstock)
PHOTO: Iranian anti-riot police forces keep watch as protesters gather in front of the German embassy in Tehran, Iran, Nov. 1, 2022. (Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA via Shutterstock)

Many Iranians have thus turned to social media for news, which has prompted the regime to "saturate it with disinformation," according to Kazemi.

"It is a real hassle to verify what we get from social media," he said. "The trust in media and credibility of journalism is at stake."

Internet restrictions and surveillance

Mahsa Alimardani, a senior researcher for international human rights group Article 19, told ABC News that the Iranian regime uses different strategies to "block" people's internet access and to "track" their connections and movements whenever they do have access. That's why "having access to a safe VPN is of utmost importance," she said.

In addition to blocking access to social media apps, including Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Telegram, one of the ways the regime disrupts the flow of information is by limiting access to Google Play, which many Iranians use to download VPNs, according to Alimardani.

With access to Google Play restricted, she said Iranians may unknowingly download VPNs developed by the regime to steal users' information. Even some local food delivery apps have been known to share the locations of protesters with authorities, according to Alimardani.

One Iranian protester, who did not want to be identified for security concerns, told ABC News that she recently received a threatening message on social media saying she could be "prosecuted" if she continues to post content against the "security of the country."

PHOTO: Iranians protest the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained by the morality police last month, in Tehran, on Oct. 27, 2022. (Middle East Images via AP, FILE)
PHOTO: Iranians protest the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained by the morality police last month, in Tehran, on Oct. 27, 2022. (Middle East Images via AP, FILE)

Alimardani said the regime’s strategies "vary" depending on the area. For instance, Iranian authorities have put in place a nightly, nationwide "curfew" on mobile connection, while some cities with mass protests are under a "complete internet blackout," according to Alimardani.

"It significantly delays compiling, verifying and distributing information about casualties in those protests," she told ABC News, adding that this then "hinders the news cycle."

Citizen journalists are especially in danger, Alimardani said, because they often send videos from protests to either Farsi-speaking TV channels based abroad, or to the social media accounts of 1500tasvir and Vahid Online, which aggregate and distribute the material. This online activity could be tracked by the regime.

"I am aware of the risks I am taking. I know in the eyes of the regime I am a 'spy,'" an Iranian protester, who did not want to be identified for security concerns, told ABC News. "But I want the world to hear the voice of our revolution. I want the world to stop recognizing a regime that kills its own innocent people."

ABC News' Riley Farrell and Morgan Winsor contributed to this report.

Weary of crackdown, Iran's regime takes on citizen journalists originally appeared on abcnews.go.com