DEBUNKING THE NEW YORK TIMES’ PARROTING OF IRAN REGIME’S DISTORTED NARRATIVE ON THE MUJAHEDIN-E KHALQ (MEK)
A short letter to the editor was sent to the New York Times the day after its February 16, 2020, biased and distorted report about life at Ashraf-3, home to thousands of members of the main Iranian opposition, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (PMOI/MEK). As the Times has failed to publish that letter, we are posting the letter in its original, longer version here, to set the record straight.
By Ali Safavi
“Highly Secretive Iranian Rebels Are Holed Up in Albania. They Gave Us a Tour,” (New York Times, Feb. 16) conveys a spurious, distorted and biased narrative about the main Iranian opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK). The level of political spin and complete divergence from reality can only be interpreted in terms of a preconceived political agenda and an assignment with specific objectives.
- Since there are objectives at play that clearly contradict the facts on the ground as well as the MEK’s conduct, the author, Patrick Kingsley, inevitably weaves together jarring inconsistencies that severely hinder his depiction. He is, nevertheless, forced to concede several facts. For example:
- In contrast to the article’s contention that journalists are rarely allowed in Ashraf-3, the author spent nine hours as a journalist at Ashraf-3. He visited anywhere he wanted, and he spoke privately with anyone he wanted, despite the fact that it is common knowledge that the Times has long produced articles tilted favorably toward the Iranian regime.
- Mr. Kingsley privately interviewed an MEK member who has been a victim of extensive propaganda claiming that she is being held against her will. She completely denied those allegations.
- The article acknowledges that the people the author interviewed highlighted their conscious choice to join the Resistance movement, adding that sacrifice is a must for waging a struggle against the clerical regime.
- Mr. Kingsley could not point to a single instance during his visit to Ashraf-3 that would verify the stale, repetitive anti-MEK propaganda.
In specific terms:
- The article tries in a variety of ways to portray a secretive, closed community, located in Manez city in the outskirts of the Albanian capital, Tirana. Ashraf-3, where thousands of MEK members reside, has, however, been visited on numerous occasions by journalists, political personalities, members of parliaments from various countries and many other citizens. Reports about these visits are publicly accessible on the internet. The Times’ failure to mention those accounts can only be explained by a not so benign political agenda.
- In less than two years, dozens of journalists from international and local Albanian media have visited Ashraf-3 and reported on their observations. These include The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, Reuters, AFP photo, Belgium’s VRT, Scotland’s National, Euro News, CD Media, Vision Plus, and Top Channel, among many others.
- Top-ranking Albanian leaders and political figures, including the President, senior cabinet ministers, party leaders (including opposition parties), and dozens of political delegations, have visited Ashraf-3. In July 2019 alone, some 350 political personalities and parliamentarians from 47 countries, including a bipartisan delegation from the U.S., toured Ashraf-3 for five days and spoke to thousands of MEK members. A detailed report of the U.S. delegation’s visit to Ashraf-3, along with their face-to-face interviews with the residents, was recently published by the Iran Policy Committee.
Telltale signs of demonization
- Inventing the name “People’s Jihadists” to refer to the MEK, is profoundly ignorant and unprofessional, if not prompted by ulterior political motives. “Mujahedin” is a historical and nationally recognized designation that was first used by Iranian freedom fighters during the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 and the nationalist movement fighting in the country’s northern forests against Reza Khan’s dictatorship at the beginning of the 20th century. In this context, Mujahedin is a deeply rooted and revered title in the eyes of the Iranian public. The true image of the MEK is reflected in its platform and conduct, which from the outset have emphasized free elections, gender equality, separation of religion and state, freedom of religion, the abolition of Sharia law, and autonomy for Iran’s nationalities.
- The clerical regime views the MEK as an existential threat. Having failed to physically annihilate the MEK in the course of over 100,000 executions and waves of terrorism, the regime has for over two decades resorted to disinformation campaigns – spreading lies such as the MEK is a “cult” whose members are forced to divorce their spouses – in order to politically discredit and delegitimize the organization. The claims appearing in the Times article are a carbon copy of those in the propaganda that the religious fascists ruling Iran have spent hundreds of millions of dollars both in Iran and abroad to disseminate, including by smuggling these allegations into western media accounts.
- The truth is, the MEK members are highly educated and have consciously and voluntarily chosen to sacrifice their personal lives to establish democracy and human rights in Iran. Many in history have acted as vanguards for freedom and liberty, thus depriving themselves of the many rewards that life has to offer in order to bring those same privileges to their people. Their selflessness is a source of honor and pride, which cannot be tarnished by the slander spread by the mullahs and repeated by some western media outlets. And it underpins the MEK’s widespread support among the Iranian people, who see that MEK members do not want anything for themselves. If the MEK is to be criticized for this, then volunteers of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and many others who have willingly deprived themselves of family and personal life must also be criticized. Similarly, political figures like Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq, the leader of Iran’s Nationalist movement, and leaders of the American and French revolutions must also be reprimanded. Shamefully, these freedom-loving Iranians, who seek the very same things for which America’s Founding Fathers fought, are chastised to set the stage for their political suppression by the clerical regime. If the Times wants to use the Resistance movement’s abstinence and the transparency of relations between men and women to accuse it of an inquisition or forced confessions, it cannot alter the reality. The MEK has advanced an all-out struggle against an inhumane regime for over three decades. In December 1996, Douglas Jehl, at the time a veteran Times Middle East correspondent, visited Ashraf in Iraq and spoke with several MEK members. He wrote: “Since 1991, the married couples among them have put their marriages on ice: their children have been sent abroad, and those who once lived as husbands and wives now live chastely as brothers and sisters.” In sharp contrast, Mr. Kingsley’s article is drenched in a repugnant, reactionary and backward outlook that conforms with the clerical regime’s lexicon as well as with the disgusting culture of objectifying women, condemned also by progressive women’s movements. This is the flip side of the moral misconduct allegations that Khomeini levied against the MEK after February 1979; every time his thugs attacked MEK offices in various Iranian cities, the regime claimed to have found sexual paraphernalia. In fact, the MEK’s “crime” is refusing to fall prey to the financial, ethical and political traps – the Achilles heel of many other progressive and democratic opposition movements – set by the mullahs and their foreign interlocutors. The regime and its allies’ consequent vengeful attitude permeates the February 16 article. The American Revolution abounds with inspiring examples of bravery, sacrifice and selfless acts that united a people around a worthy cause and led to their eventual freedom. “Of the 56 men who signed the declaration (of independence), 12 fought in battles as members of state militias, five were captured and imprisoned during the Revolutionary War, 17 lost property as a result of British raids, and five lost their fortunes in helping fund the Continental Army and state militias battle the redcoats.” Consider John Hart’s great sacrifice: “Hessian mercenaries plundered signer John Hart’s 400-acre farm outside of Hopewell, New Jersey. Prior to his farm being captured, Hart was forced to leave his family because of advancing British troops. During his absence, his wife died, and his children were sent to live with neighbors.” Was Hart, too, a brainwashed cultist worthy of scolding by the media? Or, is he a revered figure and an example for other patriots? George Washington’s greatest show of power was to sacrifice power as president. Thomas Jefferson once said: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” And, Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” Was Martin Luther King Jr. a zealot worthy of scolding by the Times?
Debunking fake news
- The article refers to an “initial standoff” in 2003 between the MEK and U.S. forces in Iraq. This is absolutely false. Prior to the outbreak of the 2003 Iraq War, the MEK publicly announced its neutrality and, according to American officials, it did not fire a single shot. State Department and White House spokespersons and senior commanders of the Coalition Forces in Iraq, including General Raymond Odierno, publicly acknowledged in June and July 2004 that the MEK had no involvement in the Iraq War, which is why they were officially granted “protected persons” status under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
- The MEK provided the Times reporter with a plethora of credible evidence and documents, proving ties between the Iranian regime and the individuals – the so-called former MEK members – with whom he had met. All this evidence is omitted from the article, while several paragraphs, hyperlinked to the debunked lies disseminated by the Intelligence Ministry and these operatives, are nevertheless featured in the piece. Only a single sentence – the MEK says they are Iranian spies – is written as a rebuttal, which is in no way consistent with journalist impartiality.
- In addition to twisting reality as described above, an article that purportedly seeks to study the MEK and its history, shockingly disregards many issues that any rational approach would acknowledge must be taken into account, including the following:
- The MEK is the primary victim of the clerical regime; over 100,000 of its sympathizers have been murdered in Iran over the past 40 years. The 1988 massacre of more than 30,000 political prisoners, the overwhelming majority of whom were MEK activists, is an irrefutable fact of modern Iranian history.
- The MEK has been the target of the clerical regime’s terrorist plots, particularly in recent years. In 2018 and 2020, the Albanian government expelled Tehran’s ambassador, deputy ambassador and head of the Intelligence Ministry branch, and two other regime diplomats on charges of hatching terrorist plots against the MEK, including a 2018 operation, thwarted by Albanian security forces, involving a truck loaded with explosives. A senior diplomat and two other terrorists are awaiting trial in Belgium for their roles in attempting to bomb a June 2018 gathering of the Iranian Resistance in the suburbs of Paris, attended by tens of thousands of people. In this context, the security measures at Ashraf-3 cannot be portrayed as bizarre, nor have they been put in place to “hide” anything. Rather, they are necessary to protect residents from terrorist threats. The Times itself published a number of reports about the Paris terrorist plot.
- The most senior officials of the regime, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, talk almost daily about the MEK and the danger it poses to the ruling regime, warning about the organization’s role in leading nationwide protests by the Iranian people.
- In an email on January 13 to the MEK’s media spokesman, Shahin Gobadi, Mr. Kingsley expressed his interest in producing a report about the MEK and indicated that he was planning to visit Albania. He noted that his itinerary scheduled the visit for a week later, but suddenly appeared in front of the Ashraf entrance on January 18 and requested entry. Standard protocols worldwide dictate that prior to the actual visit, a reporter coordinate and reach an agreement with appropriate officials on the date and time of a similar visit to, say, a corporate office or an organization. Any meetings with Mr. Kingsley at the Times office in Berlin or with any other reporter or editor of the Times in any world capital must be scheduled beforehand. In other words, no one can simply walk in without a prior appointment. Having shown up at the entrance of Ashraf-3, Mr. Kingsley asserted that he had been in Tirana for the past three days and intended to leave Albania the following day. Despite this approach, in less than three hours the MEK welcomed him into Ashraf-3, where he spent a total of nine hours He freely went wherever he pleased and spoke to whoever he wanted. Not a single one of his requests were denied by the MEK, who addressed them all despite pressing timelines., In the end, it was he who insisted on ending the visit. Despite an invitation extended to him by the MEK to return the next day, he indicated that he must return home and did not have time for a second visit. Several days later, a Times photojournalist also visited Ashraf-3 and spent a full day freely taking pictures within the site. How, then, does Mr. Kingsley reconcile his allegations of a “shadowy,” “highly secretive,” and “tightly guarded” camp? Clearly, his actual experience contradicted his own expectations and presuppositions.
- Journalistic norms would typically motivate a reporter to first interact and engage in discourse with the report’s main subject(s) and then look for alternative views (both in favor of and against the subject’s perceptions). Mr. Kingsley, however, has tried to ram objective realities into his predetermined narrative instead of extracting an unbiased account from the facts on the ground. His first tweet after penning the article is an inadvertent indicator of his goals: “Where to start? Perhaps with those who’ve escaped the MEK.” Which is why, as soon as he landed in Albania and for the next three days, he spoke with – as he recounts in his tweet ten individuals, whose collaboration with the Iranian regime’s Intelligence Ministry is undisputed.
- Kingsley interviewed a number of neighbors of Ashraf-3 in Manez. They honestly described their relations with the MEK and, according to Mr. Kingsley himself, all spoke positively about the organization. These neighbors have on multiple occasions visited Ashraf-3 and met and interacted with the residents for prolonged periods of time. However, not a single reference to their observations and or views is included in the article. Instead, in one of 17 tweets after the publication of the article, Mr. Kingsley remarks with a hint of poignancy: “One of the few organisms allowed nearby is a 3-year-old brown cow called Lordi, who I met with. Lordi grazes a field next to the wall.” Actually, there are no walls around Ashraf-3, only short, and transparent fences that allow any outsider to easily look into the residence. His apparent objective goal is to convey to the reader a sense that the MEK is a secluded, “shadowy” group locked behind “a vast and tightly guarded barracks,” where members are brainwashed and imprisoned there “against their will.”
- The contention that “we saw no more than 200 (residents), the others seemed to have been sequestered away — or to have left the group altogether,” cannot be taken seriously. Firstly, if they were being held “against their will,” how did they leave? Secondly, common sense dictates that Mr. Kingsley could not have seen the majority of the residents during a Saturday evening tour that lasted until 2 AM that night. If for example, streets in Berlin are not bustling with activity during a late, cold Saturday night in January, one can hardly surmise that Berlin residents “have been sequestered away” or “have left altogether.” Perhaps Mr. Kingsley had the expectation that upon his unannounced arrival at Ashraf-3, every single MEK member would appear at the door to give him an official reception. Judging by his track record of describing as “propaganda sessions” the meetings that he did have with Resistance officials, or his description of private interviews with residents “without any minders,” or his disregard of visits to the gym, museum and music studio, he would probably have claimed that such a reception had also been “staged.”
- Kingsley dismisses his meetings with Resistance officials and his private interviews with residents as “propaganda sessions.” His article is about the MEK in Albania and, as he admits himself, he has seen at least 200 of them and interviewed dozens. However, his 1,693-word article contains are a grand total of 38 words quoted from the MEK. If this is not censorship, then what is?
“Facts are stubborn”
We are not informed of the behind-the-scenes dynamics that typically motivate such unfair articles.
Undoubtedly, the objectives behind this article will eventually also be exposed. Is this a project that the clerical regime and its collaborators or foreign lobbies directly or indirectly ceded to the New York Times? Or, should it be seen in the context of the prevailing partisan atmosphere in Washington that provokes intense debate in favor of or against President Donald Trump, especially during an election year? Whatever the circumstances, slanted media coverage wittingly or unwittingly rescues the regime from being held to account for its crimes. Especially in circumstances where the Iranian people have risen up to overthrow the mullahs and establish democracy, only to endure yet another brutal crackdown, such coverage should be condemned.
Coincidences are rare in politics. As soon as the article was published, media outlets belonging to the various factions of the religious fascism ruling Iran, including the IRGC-affiliated Fars news agency, Ali Khamenei’s mouthpiece, Kayhan daily, and ISNA, close to Hassan Rouhani; as well as a dozen Intelligence Ministry websites, jubilantly took turns relaying the piece, which they portrayed as verification of the claims they have been making all along against the main opposition.
More than two centuries ago, the second U.S. President John Adams wrote: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Mr. Kingsley would have done well to heed this sage advice. The deadly impasse of the clerical regime, the explosive situation of Iranian society, and the growing role of the MEK in Iran’s political landscape are facts too stubborn to be tarnished, regardless of the degree of bias.
Safavi (@amsafavi) is an official with the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI)