A story has been making the rounds on the internet about the alleged abduction and rape of one Taraneh Musavi (also spelled Mousavi). The story first appeared, as acknowledged by “Azar,” a blogger at Iranian-e Chap (Leftist Iranians) and key contributor to this story, in the blogs zeerzamin (Underground), cherikonline (Online Partisan), and Iranian-e Chap. They all three agreed to break the story together and an examination of the blog postings on this subject indicate a high degree of coordination between them.
I won’t summarize the story here, partly because to do so would mean choosing which of the several conflicting versions of the story was the correct one. Those who cannot read Persian but can read English can find a summary of it here. Shirin Sadeghi has written a rehash of it published on the Huffington Post.
Since the story broke on July 13, it has come under question. Mehdi Jami of Newsbann is the first person to have gone on record with a systematic explanation about why he considers the story dubious, in a posting he made on July 17. Among other things, he argues that the story has no clear witnesses named, indeed, no names appear in the story except that of the alleged victim. A picture is produced of the alleged victim, but it is unclear where the picture came from. Moreover, “It is not the common practice to publish news of a rape with a picture” of the victim, since “it is normal to preserve the victim’s privacy.” One detail which caught Jami’s eye was that the people who had been detained with the alleged victim were released that night. This is not the common treatment of those arrested in the course of the recent upheaval.
These doubts did not go unanswered. Azar left a comment in which she said that the photograph of Taraneh was “official” and that it was, in some unspecified way, clear how it was obtained. She declared it “unnecessary” to publish the other photos of the alleged victim, although “they were accessible to one of the publishers, who knows her personally.”
For his part, cherikonline issued a lengthy answer. The gist of it was that, operating underground in Iran as he is, he cannot conform to the journalistic practices of more open societies like those in the West, where Jami lives. In particular, it is impossible to cite named sources, as Jami was demanding. He then gets into the particulars. In reply to the issue of the prisoners being freed before the day was up, he said that in fact no such thing had been said, but rather, it was said that they had been transferred to another prison. This is indeed true of the version of the story published in zeerzamin . However, the other versions have some (habastegi–”solidarity,” another website which picked up the story) or possibly all (Iranian-e Chap) of the prisoners specifically freed before the day was up or possibly within a few days (again, Iranian-e Chap, according to which they were “released that night or the following days”).
Cherikonline compares the current case with that of Zahra Bani-Ya`qub, asking who can prove that she had been murdered by the regime. Of course, in her case we had a person whose identity was established and whose family called for a full investigation of her death, a campaign which won broad support, including a very large number of Iranian parliamentarians. The Ahmadinejad administration successfully stonewalled it, but by this very act exposed its culpability. The same can be said for the case of the other murdered Zahra, Zahra Kazemi.
Contradictions in the accounts
Bloggers, particularly those working under difficult circumstances, are not expected to achieve the level of consistency of polished print journalism, for better or for worse. Moreover, it is unfair to try to trip up journalists of any stripe with minor contradictions in their accounts. A story unfolds over time and it is inevitable that new elements will work their way into it. However, this wiggle-room itself has limits, limits which I believe the three blogs who have broken this story have passed. Here are some examples.
In one place, Iranian-e Chap says, “According to reports, this young woman was arrested by plain clothes security forces at 6 pm after participating in the 7th [T]ir ceremony at Ghoba [M]osque.”
But elsewhere, in the Persian original, from which the previous quote is translated, her friend is quoted as saying that “she was absolutely not participating in the meeting or the clashes.” On the same page, her friend, in an interview, is quoted as saying, “she wasn’t participating in the rally.” This is the story followed by most sources, and we can agree that the translation was somehow in error. Again, another report says that she had participated in the 7 Tir ceremonies in the Qoba Mosque.
Iranian-e Chap gives an interview with “Sh” who, it seems, witnessed her arrest. The interview is marred by questions which anticipate the answer. (“Was Taraneh arrested on 7 Tir around the Qoba Mosque?” “Did Taraneh give her phone number to someone else while she was there?” etc.) In any case, Sh seems to have also witnessed her condition in captivity as well. Thus, Sh says, “Yes, they took her with about forty other boys and girls blindfolded to a secret detention center, which is a building with high walls on Revolutionary Guards Street.” In neither case does Sh explain where his/her information is coming from, even in the most general terms. Was Sh an eye-witness? Or did s/he hear about through a friend? Or read about it in Iranian-e Chap and simply repeat it?
This same source says that, apparently sensing that she was in significantly more trouble than her fellow-detainees, Taraneh gave them her phone number and asked them to call home. As a result, they called her family. But the narrative breaks down here. Her family was dead-set against any publicity into her case. So they also called her friends, despite the fact that, according to this narrative, they neither knew her friends’ names nor phone numbers. In any case, it is only her family which pursues the matter. zeerzamin does better here, saying that she gave the number of her family and a friend.
The anonymous call about Taraneh being in the hospital:
According to the interview with Sh, her family was told that “a body with her features … had been found in the wastelands between Karaj and Qazvin, but her family was sternly threatened not to say anything about the circumstances of her daughter’s arrest.” This is peculiar for a number of reasons. First, these people who notified her parents were obviously government people. Why would they deliver the body that the government was trying to hide, having gone so far as to incinerate it and carry it hundreds of miles out of town? Second, the government, according to the same interview, had insisted that Taraneh had not been arrested. Why then was it warning her parents not to discuss a non-existing arrest’s circumstances? Third, the body was incinerated. What identifying marks of Taraneh’s did it have? Were Taraneh’s dental records that well known in Iran? Was there an APB out for her body’s whereabouts that someone might have been keeping Taraneh’s distinguishing features in mind?
cherikonline and Iranian-e Chap reported she had been hospitalized “[a]ccording to an anonymous individual who stated, upon contacting her family, her womb and anus had been torn.”
Compare to Iranian-e Chap elsewhere, where her friend Sh said that “she wanted to throw herself in front of a car to commit suicide because her womb and anus had been torn.” However zeerzamin says that the anonymous caller said she had been hospitalized after having been in an accident. According to this story, her mother argued that she had been told her daughter had been arrested during the Qoba Mosque events. The anonymous voice told her, “Taraneh had nothing to do with the Qoba Mosque events, but rather, it is likely that she had a problem with her private parts, for she tried to hang herself with some serum tubing. He mentioned her womb and anus being torn as the reason she was hospitalized.” This would seem to be an insurmountable contradiction. Either she was hospitalized because she was in a traffic accident or because her private parts were wounded. (In a previous posting, zeerzamin says that the anonymous voice had told her that she was hospitalized because her womb and anus had been torn.)
cherikonline alone carried the rather ingenious story that “according to witnesses,” Taraneh’s family had been threatened to go along with the story that her charred body had been found in an air accident’s wreckage.
It is not clear how this rather delicate and private news, complete with details about the injuries she sustained to her private parts, was transferred from her elderly religious parents who were, in addition, under tremendous pressure by the authorities, according to the bloggers, to dummy up. They would have to have told either the bloggers or the bloggers’ friends. Neither of these seems conceivable.
The bloggers argue that they broke the story because Taraneh belongs to everyone, that they posted Taraneh’s picture against the wishes of her parents because they thought it might save her life. Arguably, they were caught between campaigning to protect someone from physical harm and to protect her and her family’s privacy. But had they had this in mind, wouldn’t they have issued an appeal for this missing individual and a desperate public call for people to turn in whatever information they had about her whereabouts? No such appeal, not even the hint of such an appeal, appeared on their blogs.
Early in the story, Taraneh’s family residence’s street and her father’s profession are given, presumably in a bid to give the story an air of verisimilitude. This is quietly dropped in other posts.
All sorts of friends of Taraneh’s appear to be interviewed or give information, but only to these three blogs. It never occurs to these friends to contact Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch or sympathetic members of the Iranian Majlis or women’s groups (such as Feminist School), for example.
Another cause for skepticism is that of the three blogs, zeerzamin was founded only shortly before the story was broken, and is therefore something of a “sock puppet,” while cherikonline has a long record of just plain rumor-mongering. Thus, it circulated a very dubious letter by Revolutionary Guard commanders to Mohsen Reza’i calling for him to continue to protest the electoral fraud; pushed the story on his own authority that Revolutionary Guard commander Ali Fazli has been arrested for refusing to turn against the people (although this blog later walked that position back); claimed again on its own authority that large numbers of drafted members of the security forces were refusing to fight; claimed yet again on its own authority to know of a government plot to have basijis massacred in an explosion to force the people to come together in mourning them for a week. (And this, in the month of June of this year alone!)
Of course, the story might turn out to be true, if awkwardly handled. But I remember the Tawana Brawley affair and the confusion and disorientation caused by it.
(UPDATE July 21, 2009)
Taraneh Musavi has now become a prop for a right-wing American Thaddeus McCotter. This, in and of itself, does not discredit the Taraneh Musavi story. Indeed, he had earlier used, who was, of course, a very real person who suffered a real tragedy, to shed his crocodile tears over.
(UPDATE July 22, 2009)
برخي از مخاطبان بحث هايي را عنوان کرده اند مبني بر اين که وبلاگ زيرزمين که به انتشار اين خبر اقدام کرده، به تازگي راه افتاده است. اين جا بايد بگويم وبلاگ زيرزمين به منظور انتشار خبرهاي ترانه راه اندازي شد ولي اين بدان معنا نيست که اين وبلاگ اخبار ديگر اين روزها را منتشر نمي کند.
“Some have said that zeerzamin, which has published this news [the Taraneh Musavi story] was just launched [i.e., in order to publish this story]. Here, I must say that zeerzamin was launched in order to spread the news of Taraneh, but this does not mean that it does not publish other news these days.”
(UPDATE August 10, 2009)
Here is a twenty minute segment published by the Islamic Republic’s media.
It has rightly met with scorn among Iranians. They raise various issues:
- The idea that in the whole country (really, in the whole world) there are only three Taraneh Musavis is entirely unlikely.
- It is impossible to believe that both the mother and the regime’s “Taraneh Musavi” did not know about the story swirling around her, especially since her daughter is living outside Iran and has free access to the internet.
- If the story is a hoax, as the Islamic Republic’s propagandists claim, why would the hoaxsters use a real Taraneh Musavi? If I were making up a story about a drug dealer, say, would I use the name of a real human being?
- Do the parents have no photographs of their daughter whom they had sent to Canada? This would have clinched the argument and would have been very easy to provide, but the interviewer does not even make this minimal effort to prove his case.
- There was no effort to contact the Canadian “Taraneh Musavi”. This would, of course, take some planning and logistics, but it would have shredded the case beyond redemption and utterly discredited the people who peddled the story. But of course there is no such Taraneh Musavi living in Canada.
Any one of these arguments shows the regime’s propagandists to be flat-out liars. Put together, they demolish the regime’s hoax within a hoax.
(UPDATE August 12, 2009)
A crackpot website Les dessous de l’information mondiale-Downside World News stole my article and added its own headline, “US-UK WEST Hoax about Iran”. Of course, I nowhere say that the US or the UK had anything to do with the story and believe no such thing. Visitors are encouraged to leave a comment expressing their protests of such methods. It hasn’t published my own protests of this plagiarism, but maybe you will have better luck.
For Persian-readers, here is another blog which makes many of my points.