Trying to report from a country like Iran under state-mandated censorship is hard. The Associated Press is making it harder by caving to the demands of the Iranian regime and refusing to allow its Iranian subscribers to use this photo.
The photo, which shows the daughter of reformist politician Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani speaking at a rally for Mir Hossein Mousavi, was taken from IRIB, Iran's state-controlled television network. It went out this morning on the AP's photo wire, and can be used by any of the news collective's subscribers to illustrate stories on the unrest in Iran. Except the subscribers actually in Iran. No such luck for them. The image—along with several other shots taken from IRIB—bears the following restriction:
** IRAN OUT — EDITORIAL USE ONLY — NO ACCESS BBC PERSIAN TV SERVICE/NO ACCESS VOA PERSIAN TV ** EDITORS NOTE AS A RESULT OF AN OFFICIAL IRANIAN GOVERNMENT BAN ON FOREIGN MEDIA COVERING EVENTS IN IRAN, THE AP IS OBLIGED TO USE IMAGES FROM OFFICIAL SOURCES
What that means is that the AP will not permit any Iranian subscribers—in this case BBC Persian and the Voice of America's Persian-language service, both of which are trying to cover the unrest on their web sites and need images to do so—to use the picture. The reason, according to AP spokesman Jack Stokes, is restrictions imposed on the AP and other foreign news services by the Iranian regime.
"It's based on permissions," Stokes told Gawker. "All photos have information about who can use them and who's out. This picture is not for use by the ones who should not be using them, because of our restrictions. They're out on that particular photo."
"Clearly, when our journalists can't go out and see things and talk to people, our ability to tell the story is not as good as when we are able to go out to report and take pictures and video," AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said.
When controls are imposed, "we work with those restrictions, keeping in mind our ultimate goal is to be able to do our jobs as journalists," she said.
Except this isn't about whether AP reporters can go out an do their jobs on the streets of Tehran. It's about whether the AP will distribute information within Iran that the Iranian regime has asked it not to. And in this case, it won't. Granted, the images in question were already broadcast in Iran by state-controlled media, and presumably either the BBC or the VOA could lift their own images from the IRIB. But for the AP to refuse to allow the BBC or the Voice of America to pick them up and redistribute them aids and abets Ahmedinejad's efforts to maintain control over the story as it unfolds.
In the AP's defense, the situation in Iran is obviously dicey. The news organization's priorities are the safety of its people, and ensuring their continued presence in Iran so they can cover the story. Caving—or perhaps, given the chaos of the situation and its coverage, merely appearing to cave—into a demand about who can get some of its photos might be a small price to pay in order to stay in the game. And remains unclear exactly what the AP would do if an Iranian news service picked up one of the restricted images in violation of the rules. In the end, trying to cover authoritarian regimes always becomes a negotiation about what you're willing to give up in order to stay on the ground. But people ought to know about precisely what you've decided to give up, and what you've gotten in return.