From New Orleans to Tehran: Life of detained Iran newscaster Marzieh Hashemi

As a newscaster for Press TV, Marzieh Hashemi has been conducting interviews and reading the news as written by government loyalists in Iran. (AP)
Updated 17 January 2019
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From New Orleans to Tehran: Life of detained Iran newscaster Marzieh Hashemi

  • Hashemi studied journalism at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge
  • Hashemi ended up in Iran working at Iran’s state broadcaster

WASHINGTON: She is largely unknown in the US. But the American anchorwoman for Iran’s state-run broadcaster, detained last weekend by US authorities, is a familiar face on its English-language channel.
As a newscaster for Press TV, Marzieh Hashemi has been conducting interviews and reading the news as written by government loyalists in Iran. It’s a long way from New Orleans, where she was born Melanie Franklin in 1959 to a Christian family.
In college in Louisiana, encounters with Iranian students in the wake of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution saw her convert to Islam. A marriage brought her to Iran, where she learned fluent Farsi and began working for the country’s state broadcaster 25 years ago.
Her journalism and her public comments mirror her host country’s official ideology.
“When I got familiar with Islamic Revolution in Iran, and I saw it was a political and religious revolution, I was attracted to this,” Hashemi once told an interviewer in Farsi. “I saw this as a political movement to the revolution.”
Now, after her apparent arrest by the FBI, her family is questioning why the 59-year-old grandmother was imprisoned by the US Her detention comes at a time of escalating US-Iran tensions, including President Donald Trump’s maximalist approach to Iran after pulling America out of its nuclear deal.
Hashemi was detained Sunday in St. Louis, where she had filmed a Black Lives Matter documentary after visiting relatives in the New Orleans area. She was then taken to Washington by the FBI on a material witness warrant, according to her elder son, Hossein Hashemi.
The FBI said in an email that it had no comment.
Federal law allows judges to order witnesses to be arrested and detained if the government can prove their testimony has extraordinary value for a criminal case and that they would be a flight risk and unlikely to respond to a subpoena. The statute generally requires those witnesses to be promptly released once they are deposed.
Hashemi studied journalism at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. A yearbook photo shows her smiling with other colleagues at WPRG, now KLSU, the student-run radio station.
“When we were in school together, that was during the Iran hostage crisis. LSU had a sizeable number of Iranian students who were going to school there,” said radio newsman Jim Engster of Baton Rouge, who was also in the photograph.
“The time we were in school was less than 25 years from LSU being an all-white school. So Melanie was a trailblazer too as a black female journalist. There were a few others but not many.”
Hashemi said that’s where she learned about Iran’s revolution, which saw Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi replaced by an Islamic Republic led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a Shiite cleric who had final say on state matters as the country’s supreme leader.
“I started to ask them about the revolution, because there were many demonstrations by pro-Khomeini demonstrators and also against the revolution in that university,” she later recounted. “I wanted to know that what they are doing and find out who is the Ayatollah Khomeini, and it was very interesting for me as an activist.”
Hashemi ended up in Iran working at Iran’s state broadcaster, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, or IRIB.
There are no private television or radio stations in Iran. Satellite dishes, while widespread, also are illegal. That leaves IRIB with a monopoly on domestic airwaves.
Since the revolution, IRIB has been in the hands of hard-liners who back Iran’s government. Their broadcasts mirror those of other state-run channels across the Mideast, with direct criticism of leaders incredibly rare.
Press TV, launched in June 2007, is IRIB’s English-language service. While airing in Iran, it focuses predominantly on international affairs through the lens of how leaders in the Islamic Republic see the world. The hashtag “FreePalestine” accompanies stories on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Fierce criticism of British and American foreign policy is common.
Its broadcasts have drawn Western criticism.
In 2012, the Anti-Defamation League described the channel as “one of the world’s leading dispensers of conspiratorial anti-Semitism in English.”
The channel was pulled from the air in Britain in 2011 after a complaint by Maziar Bahari, a Canadian-Iranian journalist for Newsweek who was imprisoned by Iran after the 2009 disputed re-election of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the Green Movement protests. Bahari said the channel aired an interview that had been scripted by his captors, who threatened to execute him unless he cooperated.
For her part, Hashemi both helmed newscasts critical of the West and offered her own criticisms as well.
In 2009, she said she believed Western media exaggerated popular support in Iran for Mir Hossein Mousavi, a reformist who was later put under house arrest, where he has languished for years after challenging Ahmadinejad in 2009 and leading the Green Movement protests.
“What is shown many times in the West, for example, when people saw that there was a very large demonstration supporting Mr. Mousavi, people got the feeling that the country was falling apart and that the majority of Iranians actually supported Mr. Mousavi,” Hashemi told NPR. “No, the majority of them did not, and the other side of the spectrum has not been shown as much, I believe.”
It remains unclear why Hashemi was arrested. However, it isn’t the first time she’s been questioned by US authorities, her son said.
For the past decade, “she has been harassed on a regular basis when she goes to airports,” he said. “Whenever she boards a plane, prior to it she will have interviews or interrogation, if we might call it that— things that are not very typical is what she’s had to deal with for some time.”


Facebook targets fake news in Arabic language media

Updated 19 February 2019
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Facebook targets fake news in Arabic language media

  • Social media giant reveals plans to roll out further initiatives across the Arab world
  • “We want to empower people to decide what to read, trust and share”

LONDON: Facebook has again found itself under scrutiny amid global efforts to stamp out fake news circulating on social media sites. Nashwa Aly, Facebook’s head of public policy for the Middle East and North Africa, spoke to Arab News about the company’s new Arabic-language fact-checking service.
Q: Has the fact-checking service in Arabic already started? If so, are there any results as to how many articles are being flagged as false?
A: The third-party fact-checking in Arabic rolls out as of this month, so still no results to share yet. We recognize the implications of false news on Facebook and we are committed to doing a better job to fight it. More than 181 million people use Facebook every month across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), so this is a responsibility that we take very seriously, and we’re excited to see through the this launch in partnership with AFP MENA. 
How many people will be working on it and what kind of volume of false stories do you expect to identify daily?
It varies by country, but AFP draws on the resources of multiple local bureaus, as well as centralized Arabic-speaking fact-checkers, to fact-check content.
Why did Facebook choose to enter into this initiative? Is the fake news problem any worse in Arabic compared with other languages? Are there any specific issues in challenging this problem in Arabic compared with other languages?
This expansion with AFP, with whom we already have successful fact-checking partnerships across the Latin American and Asia Pacific regions, is a step forward in our efforts to combat Arabic-language misinformation, and we will continue to take steps to expand our efforts globally this year. This initiative is particularly important across MENA, given that misinformation is a major concern in the region.
The present challenges do not necessarily stem from the Arabic language. However, there are some challenges that can arise, such as how to treat opinion and satire. We strongly believe that people should be able to debate different ideas, even controversial ones. We also recognize that there can be a fine line between misinformation and satire or opinion. This can make it more difficult for fact-checkers to assess whether an article should be rated as “false” or left alone.
It appears from the announcement that Facebook will not be actively removing “fake news” links identified under this initiative with AFP. Is that right, and if so, do you think the initiative goes far enough?
The way this will work is that when fact-checkers rate a story as false, we significantly reduce its distribution in News Feed — dropping future views on average by more than
80 percent. Pages and domains that repeatedly share false news will also see their distribution reduced, and their ability to monetize and advertise removed.
We also want to empower people to decide what to read, trust, and share. When third-party fact-checkers write articles about a news story, we show them in Related Articles immediately below the story in News Feed. We also send people and Page Admins notifications if they try to share a story or have shared one in the past that has been determined to be false.
Finally, to give people more control, we encourage them to tell us when they see false news. Feedback from our community is one of the various signals that we use to identify potential hoaxes. 
Facebook also entered into an initiative with the UAE National Media Council to fight fake news. Is it looking to any other agreements in this field regionally, especially in Saudi Arabia?
The partnership with the UAE National Media Council and the launch of third-party fact-checking in Arabic, in partnership with AFP MENA are both key steps in our efforts against false news but are not nearly done yet. We plan to continue to take steps to expand our efforts this year both globally and regionally.