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Iranian activists build The Onion-esque Web presence against its exiled international journalists

Iranian journalists have apparently been targeted in an orchestrated online campaign sanctioned by authorities in the country that uses social media and blogs, designed to try and smear their reputations and discredit their work while they are in exile.

The Guardian newspaper in the U.K. reports that online activists who are at least sympathetic to the current regime have been actively setting up “a number of fake Facebook accounts and blogs, purporting to belong to BBC journalists or their Iranian colleagues” in order to offer up both entirely fabricated news stories. In one example, a news headline recently posted on one of the counterfeit news sites read “Death of Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein: Fabricated Stories by Washington,” going on to personally damaging misinformation and fake confessions by well-known Iranian journalists. One journalist, Nafiseh Kouhnavard, who hosts a talk show on BBC Persian, was subject to a fake Facebook page in which “she” was seen to confess to a number of affairs, filled with such fabricated quotes as “Swinging… is not only limited to me, in fact it is common and normal [in London, where Kouhnavard is headquartered].”

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Such attempts to destroy the reputation of the journalists are not restricted to personal “revelations,” with one pro-authority news outlet, Vatan-e-Emrooz Daily, going so far as to run a report that claimed that Kouhnavard was actually a spy for the British Secret Service who had left Iran illegally with the help of another Secret Service agent.

Sadeq Saba, the head of BBC Persian, describes these attacks as identity theft, saying that “they write whatever they want and they create the impression that they are actually written by BBC staff.” He has first hand experience of such tactics, having been the victim of a fake blog set up in his name that claimed that the BBC’s job was not to report news, but fabricate it as necessary. He told the Guardian that, although he didn’t believe that the majority of people in Iran would fall for the hoax sites, the fake material did “create confusion” online. Which is reminiscent of the blog Literally Unbelievable, which showcases people falling for articles of humor news site The Onion.

The harassment isn’t limited to disinformation, sadly; family members of the journalists have been interrogated by authorities in what seems to be an attempt to silence the journalists by threatening their loved ones. “In comparison to previous round of harassment, this time the language they were using in Iran [against the family members] was more threatening,” Saba says, explaining that he and his fellow journalists broadcasting outside the country “try to raise awareness in the international community, they don’t know what is happening in Iran.

“A lot of people are aware of journalists being harassed and killed around the world but a lot of people don’t know that in places like Iran, relatives of journalists are also paying a heavy price for the work of their loved ones,” he said. “Despite the pressure, we continue to remain impartial, we continue to remain cool and continue our professional services.”

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