Eye on data journalism in Iran

Conversations with Data: #96

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Welcome back to the latest Conversations with Data newsletter! This issue celebrates our 50th podcast episode. Since launching in February 2020, we've reached 35,000 listeners and ranked in Apple's top 200 for educational podcasts in dozens of countries around the world.

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Since the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman arrested in September by the Iranian morality police for allegedly not following the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code, the world’s attention has turned to Iran.

With internet shutdowns and limited access to freedom of information, what does investigative data reporting look for journalists covering Iran? To better understand this, we spoke to Marketa Hulpachova from Tehran Bureau, an independent investigative outlet focusing on data journalism.

As a data journalist, she talks to us about how Tehran Bureau approaches data journalism in a closed-information society like Iran. She explains how she uses publicly available company data to show networks and map patterns revealing corruption within the top ranks of the Iranian regime.

Listen to the podcast on Spotify, SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts. Alternatively, read the edited Q&A with the panel below.

What we asked

Could you tell us about Tehran Bureau?

We are an independent news platform focused on Iran, founded in 2008. I joined in 2009 when massive protests took place in Iran. I'm now head of investigations. Tehran Bureau quickly became a source of information for anyone who wanted English-language news on Iran that wasn't in the mainstream media. We had this unprecedented partnership, first with PBS/ Frontline and then with The Guardian. Since 2016, we've been on our own. Over the past five years, we have morphed into an investigative outlet focusing only on data journalism as it pertains to Iran's economy.

Our audience is anyone in the international community focused on Iran and the people inside the country. We publish both in Farsi and in English and seek to inform journalists interested in covering corruption, business and the economy in Iran. We also target internationally-based organisations that focus on Iran, especially in the field of corruption. This transparency issue, as it pertains to Iran, is a global issue. We see so many crossovers with networks of corruption that go far beyond Iran's borders.

What makes the current protests across Iran different from past civil unrest?

This is the first time that women's rights -- and women's rights alone -- have taken front and centre stage in these protests. I'm incredibly awed and proud of these very young women who are ripping off their headscarves and just risking everything to get some freedom, to take control of their narrative. They're doing it not only for all of us women who've been to Iran and worn mandatory hijab, but for anyone who's concerned with authoritarianism and how much it incurs on your personal rights.

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What do you think is next for Iran?

No one can know what will happen if the whole thing falls apart. There's a lot of fear because there hasn't been any space given to a real conversation of what any democratic or slightly more democratic alternative for Iran would look like. So I would like to stick to what I can see the regime doing. One thing they're already doing is saying there may be some leeway on hijab. They've got incredible flexibility when they want to because all they're concerned with, I think, is staying in power. And they will do anything to do that because they have so many economic interests in doing so.

Another thing that is quietly happening is this transition towards networked authoritarianism or digital authoritarianism. The idea is to replace this much-hated morality police with artificial intelligence. This technology could pick people out of the crowd and show a person in violation of this dress code, for example. This is not very dissimilar to what you see happening in China with facial recognition software.

Tehran Bureau published a piece about building a surveillance state inside Iran using Chinese technology. Iran is not the only country where they're doing it, but it's one of the countries where they've received the most domestic support to build it as fast as possible. People are aware that if nothing changes inside Iran, this is where it's headed.

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Speaking of digital authoritarianism, Iran has also experienced internet shutdowns during protests. What does this mean for your reporting as a data journalist?

During an internet shutdown, as data journalists, our biggest fear is the loss of information. When internet disruptions start happening, we start downloading everything we can. And it's a big concern for us. How do we obtain all these archives and ensure they don't get destroyed -- either in a shutdown or in the case of chaos or anarchy. We encourage everyone in the community working on Iran to do the same because you never know when it's all going to be lost. In the worst-case scenario, we want to ensure that this trove of information is at least partially preserved.

Could you talk to us about your approach to data journalism at Tehran Bureau?

The data that we use is associational and involves no numbers. We are showing networks about how individuals and companies are related to each other. The data we look at is reams and reams of business registration documents. And then, we start identifying patterns. One of the biggest patterns in the Iranian economy is that there is only one shareholder for hundreds of companies. This is not normal, but that's the case in Iran. The association charts to prove this are massive. The story of corruption in Iran is overwhelming and so brazen. The challenge is always to make this into smaller news stories. We also aim to find a way to follow the news cycle to resonate with a wider audience.

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You uncovered the financial portfolio of Iran's supreme leader. Could you tell us how you went about this investigation?

As a data journalist, it can sometimes be difficult to lose yourself in the patterns you identify. You go down a rabbit hole and aren't sure where it will lead. Sometimes you discover a treasure trove. This story examines companies associated with the supreme leader's office -- a power vortex of all this corruption. But the way we began this story in the first place was that we noticed that certain companies had the same auditor and that auditor is listed in the business registration documents. After we found out who the auditor was, we realised that this was the official auditor of the supreme leader's office. And by identifying that detail, we could discover thousands of associated companies. The story debunks the supreme leader's claims, saying he has no links to the economy.

What is one overall challenge you face as a journalist when covering Iran?

One thing we have struggled with in the past, we cannot openly cover what we think the story is without sounding like we are too much pro-regime change and not willing enough to work with the regime on some sort of reform. That is not something we're hearing from the Iranian people right now. We are hearing that they are very sick and tired of what's going on. But in the international community, among media and civil society not based in Iran, there's a much more careful approach regarding what happens next. Because of that, even outside the country, there are certain red lines in what you can report on and what you can say without sounding like you're too much of an activist or too much pro-regime change. Then you get labelled as an opposition media outlet -- but what we're trying to do is very much be independent and objective. This is something we have struggled with in the past.

Finally, what's next for Tehran Bureau?

Resources permitting, I would like to uncover the international dimension of all these corrupt networks I've been talking about. We already know where to look. We have significant amounts of information on the topic. But one of the big challenges for us is legal liability. I'm sure you've heard other journalists talk about SLAPPS and other ways to put so much legal pressure on small news organisations, so they cannot proceed with an investigation. It can also mean shutting down altogether due to the huge amount of financial pressure. To continue the story, especially if we're going to start targeting individuals and entities based in places like Europe or the United States or anywhere outside of Iran, you're exposing yourself to more legal risk.

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Tara from the EJC data team,

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