By Jubin Katiraie
A lawsuit against a German daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung has been upheld in court, signifying the latest victory by the Iranian opposition group, Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK-PMOI) in its ongoing battle against politically motivated disinformation.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran filed the suit in response to a May 13 article titled, “The Devil Should Be Living in Tirana,” which purported to describe social structures and practices at a compound near the Albanian capital that houses members of the NCRI’s main constituent group, the MEK-PMOI.
That compound, called Ashraf 3, began to take shape after much of the MEK members had relocated to Albania in accordance with an international agreement brokered with help from the United States and the United Nations. The FAZ article made note of this agreement but added the unsubstantiated claim that Saudi Arabia had also helped in relocating MEK members to Europe during the time when they were under pressure from Iranian operatives and their Iraqi allies.
Prior to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the MEK maintained a headquarters there, at the self-built community of Camp Ashraf. Later, in 2012, most of its residents were moved to Camp Liberty, pending their permanent relocation to Albania and other safe host countries. In the meantime, the Iranian dissidents suffered several attacks, as well as blockades of medicine and essential services, resulting in dozens of deaths. The relocation was not completed until 2016, and most of the “Ashrafis” took up residence at the new Albanian compound the following year.
Allegations of Saudi involvement in this process are familiar features of the Iranian regime’s narratives about exiled dissidents. Despite dismissing the MEK as a “cult” that lacks substantial support in its homeland, Tehran also tends to portray the organization as being bankrolled by foreign “enemies” of the clerical regime. However, this narrative is inconsistent about the identity of these enemies and about the nature of their support. Depending on circumstances, Tehran’s public statements might connect the MEK to Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom, or any combination thereof.
In 2018, for instance, the regime folded all of these allegations into one, as part of an effort to delegitimize the leading role of the MEK in the nationwide uprising that had begun in the final days of the previous year. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei insisted that that uprising had somehow been instigated by a “triangle of enemies” consisting of Tehran’s main Arab rival, the Jewish state, and the West, with the MEK operating as infantry on behalf of these handlers. But as usual, no evidence was presented.
The absence of such evidence was effectively reaffirmed by the judgment in the NCRI’s case against FAZ. Its reference to Saudi support was one of three claims in the May 13 article that was ordered removed, on penalty of fines of up to 250,000 Euros each if they are repeated in subsequent publications. The other two claims that were successfully challenged had to do with the supposed treatment of MEK members themselves inside the compound. The article alleged that some such individuals had been subjected to physical and psychological torture and that residents were generally barred from maintaining contact with their families outside the compound.
The NCRI’s lawsuit was supported by documents that demonstrated both the falsity of these claims and the questionable origin of the allegations. The MEK and its parent coalition have long maintained that defamatory information can very often be traced back to Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and that negative media reports about the Camp Ashraf and its successors tend to be either deliberate or unwitting repetitions of state propaganda.
Many of the exculpatory documents cited in the recent case were reportedly the same as those used in other successful legal challenges to media outlets. Notably, FAZ is not the first such outlet to be taken to court in Germany in recent years. In February 2019, Der Spiegel published an article titled “Prisoners of Their Own Revolution,” which similarly profiled the Albanian compound and repeated some of the same unsubstantiated allegations regarding the abuse of residents. The following month, a judge in Hamburg upheld the suit and warned of the same 250,000 Euro financial penalties in the case of a repeat offense.
In a sense, however, the 2019 article’s publication was itself an example of a repeat offense by Der Spiegel. The NCRI’s response to it pointed out that the organization had informed the outlet on multiple occasions about questionable behavior by journalists who had expressed interest in the Albanian compound. In one letter dated October 12, 2018, the NCRI’s Representative Office in Germany specifically warned Der Spiegel’s editors-in-chief that they were in danger of “exploitation” by the Iranian regime after it was revealed that the reporter Luisa Hommerich had spent time in Tehran as a student and had developed extensive connections within Iranian political and security institutions before pursuing a story about the MEK.
Hommerich later presented herself at the Albanian compound under false pretenses, and her request for access was rebuffed. While the resulting article portrayed this as an act of obstruction on the part of the MEK, it failed to note that the organization had subsequently written to Der Spiegel’s deputy foreign editor Mathieu von Rohr with an open invitation to tour the compound and speak to its residents. “We reaffirm that there are no obstacles for you to visit the location of the Iranian refugees in Albania,” the letter declared, “provided that journalistic neutrality, devoid of malevolence and plots and conspiracies of Iran's religious dictatorship, is respected.”
The more recent judgment, concerning very similar allegations as published in FAZ, recognizes the same failure of journalistic standards as cited in the judgment against Der Spiegel. It, too, points to the excessively confident assertion of injurious claims, before noting, “Even if these claims were stated as alleged, it is not evident that [the outlet’s] principles were adhered to.”
Whereas accusations against the MEK that appeared in both Der Spiegel and Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung appear to have been sourced from affiliates of the MOIS, there have been prior instances in which allegations were published in international media directly under the byline of such an affiliate. Massoud Khodabandeh and his British-born wife Anne Singleton, for instance, continued to be identified in certain publications as impartial experts on Iran and “counterterrorism,” despite their proven associations with regime authorities and their single-minded focus on defaming the MEK.
The lack of scrutiny in such cases is made all the more remarkable by its contrast with an apparent tendency to reject out of hand the “denials” offered by the Iranian Resistance in the face of regime-sourced accusations. This latter tendency was highlighted in both of the recent German court cases, with the judge in the first declaring that the relevant journalistic errors were largely attributable to the fact that the NCRI’s representatives were “not heard” in the matter of any allegations deployed against them.