Western media is facing a growing backlash from Iranian activists and journalists after numerous outlets falsely reported that Iran's Guidance Patrol — otherwise known as the "morality police" — had been abolished.
The flurry of Western claims — which were made by established media outlets including The New York Times and Le Monde — was triggered by an ambiguous statement made on Saturday evening by Iran's Attorney General, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri.
"The morality police had nothing to do with the judiciary, and the same institution that established it has now shut it down," Montazeri claimed, adding: "The judiciary will continue to supervise social behaviours."
"Reports that Khamenei’s regime has abolished the 'morality police' are fake news," Kasra Aarabi, the head of the Iran Program at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, tweeted on Sunday. "This disinfo was propagated today to distract media attention from the 3 days of major protests in Iran which begin tomo. Why did mainstream media ignore this context?"
Aarabi's remarks were echoed by Borzou Daragahi, The Independent's international correspondent.
"It's so pathetic," Daragahi tweeted. "Some grumpy old functionary made an offhand remark at an inconsequential meeting, and Western news outlets just went crazy with it. It was actually a non-story."
Daraghi's and Aarabi's claims were further corroborated by reports in Iranian state media.
"No official of the Islamic Republic of Iran has said that the Guidance Patrol has been shut," Iranian state-run Arabic language outlet Al Alam stated on Sunday evening. "Some foreign media have attempted to interpret these words by the Attorney General as the Islamic Republic retreating from the issue of the hijab and modesty and claim that it is due to the recent riots."
In contrast to Western media, over the weekend many Western governments expressed deep scepticism regarding the claim that Iran's morality police had been disbanded.
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"The statements come from the Attorney General, who cannot, by virtue of his role, dissolve the morality police," said German Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman Andrea Sasse. "It is therefore necessary to show a certain restraint in the assessment. Let's wait and see what the exact impact of this announcement will be. "
The US State Department similarly noted that it "will not comment on ambiguous or vague claims by Iranian officials".
Iran has been engulfed by increasingly violent protests over the past 11 weeks. They were triggered by the death of of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, who allegedly was beaten to death by Iran's morality police shortly after being arrested for wearing her hijab incorrectly.