What’s With the Iranian Students News Agency?

Iran must have a really good J-school.

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The board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency met on Thursday to discuss whether to report Iran’s nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council. Earlier this week, the Iranian Students News Agency reported that Iran’s chief negotiator would cut off talks if the IAEA made the report. Another official told the Students News Agency that “the Europeans cannot find a legal basis” for referring Iran to the United Nations. What’s the Iranian Students News Agency, and why is it so widely quoted in the Western media?

It’s a politically moderate news source that was created to provide information from and about Iranian universities. The agency got its start on Nov. 4, 1999, a few months after a major government crackdown on student activists. That summer, about 1,400 students were arrested, detained, and, in some cases, beaten by security forces. Under the reformist regime of then-President Mohammad Khatami, the ISNA was able to obtain the necessary licenses and begin operations.

The agency’s staff—consisting mostly of university students—produces coverage of the country’s culture, politics, science, and sports for the ISNA Web site. They also post photos to a free online archive. In 2000, the Economist described a group of student journalists who “huddle over a handful of computers, pumping out breaking news from campuses across Iran.” At that time there were about 30 ISNA offices throughout the country.

ISNA’s reformist bent and relative independence make it a favorite source for the Western news media. (Iran’s state-controlled Islamic Republic News Agency tempers its news-gathering mission with a promise to take “into account its main objective of promoting the interests and objectives of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”) The Students News Agency does collect some government money and has the backing of a government-sanctioned student organization called University Jihad.

In recent years, ISNA has dealt with increasing scrutiny from the hard-liners in power. Its original director resigned last fall, after being hauled into court on numerous occasions—he was once brought in for reporting on Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner. And a recent report from the BBC says the Iranian government no longer allows ISNA to cover the arrests of activists, students, or dissident journalists. (The ban extends to Iran’s other reform-minded news service—the Iranian Labour News Agency, which started up in early 2003 with a focus on the country’s workforce.)

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Explainer thanks Gabriel Sherman for asking the question.