Fake news has been exposed at Der Spiegel, the widely respected German news magazine with a weekly circulation of almost one million readers. Der Spiegel’s star reporter, Claas Relotius, admitted that he made up stories that won him awards for journalism and saw him acclaimed as journalist of the year by CNN in 2014. Relotius also wrote investigative articles for Die Welt, Die Zeit and for US and British newspapers. The scandal has led to an outpouring of anguish by the journals who used Relotius’ work, with many leading journalists stating that he has undermined the credibility of the profession.

The scandal in Germany should ring alarm bells in Britain, where fake news has begun to make inroads into media outlets that were once respected for their integrity.  Press like the Guardian, the Independent and Channel 4 News have both recently published stories traducing People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI) members residing in Albania. The PMOI is a key opposition movement seeking regime change in Iran.  It has been oppressed in Iran, suffering repeated massacres and assaults that have left tens of thousands members and supporters dead and imprisoned. The UN is currently investigating the murder of 30,000 PMOI prisoners in 1988 in Iran in an atrocity that has become the subject of a major report by Amnesty International.

As a former British MEP, I have closely followed the Iranian opposition for the last 18 years, from its time in camps Ashraf and Liberty in Iraq to the present and I know the organization to be honourable and highly motivated. Many have given up their careers and even family life to fight for the liberation of their country. 3,000 of their supporters had built a camp in Iraq where they had lived in peace for years, until the US military left the country and handed over control of their camp to Iraqi authorities.  Iran then orchestrated repeated brutal attacks on these unarmed and defenceless refugees. 168 men and women were killed and 1400 were wounded. An international campaign began to rescue the survivors, but the EU turned a blind eye. Only Albania, which had suffered from years of Communist oppression and knew what freedom fighting is all about, offered a safe haven and a major airlift began. 

Iranwould not easily allow these dissidents to set up a new base in Albania. A campaign of demonization and terror began. The tiny Iranian embassy in Tirana was transformed into one of Iran’s largest embassies in the Balkans. In early 2016, as the Iranian dissidents were being transferred to Albania, Iran sent a new ambassador, Gholam Hossein Mohammadnia, to this country. Mohammadnia was a former high-ranking intelligence official and member of the Iranian nuclear negotiating team before accepting his appointment in Albania. His main mandate was to continue to implement Iran’s plots against the opposition. 

In late 2017, another senior intelligence official, Mostafa Roudaki, joined him as First Secretary. He became the IranianIntelligence Ministry’s (MOIS) station chief in Albania.He was previously head of the regime's intelligence station in Austria and had been coordinating surveillance and terrorist activities against the PMOI in Europe. He was replaced in Austria by Assadullah Assadi, who was arrested in Germany in July 2018 after he had delivered a bomb to two Iranian agents and instructed them to detonate it at a large gathering of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a coalition that includes the PMOI, in Paris. This meeting was attended by Iranians and hundreds of international dignitaries. Assadi was later extradited to Belgium and is now awaiting trial on terrorism charges. 

Prior to that, in March, a terrorist plot against a Persian New Year celebration gathering of PMOI members in Tirana was foiled and when the finger of blame was pointed at Iran’s ambassador to Albania, Gholam Hossein Mohammadnia and his First Secretary Mostafa Roudaki, the two were expelled from the country by Prime Minister Edi Rama, on the grounds that they posed a threat to national security. 

This was not an isolated case of Iran using its embassies as terrorist cells. In September of last year, the regime also sent another MOIS agent with close ties to the Iranian embassy and its ambassador in Norway to assassinate an Iranian opposition figure in Denmark. He too now awaits trial on terrorism charges.

Prior to these expulsions, the demonization campaign against the PMOI had begun. For this purpose, the mullahs focused their attention on elements of the Western media, manipulating their anti-American agenda to encompass a smear campaign against the PMOI.  To do so, Iran set up official or unofficial intelligence and surveillance stations in the Balkans. Massoud Khodabandeh and his wife, Anne Singleton, two well-known UK-based MOIS agents, identified as such in a Congressional and Pentagon reports, were flown to Tirana several times. In October 2018, when Twitter revealed a large number of tweets and re-tweets posted by the MOIS and the IRGC, it became clear that many of the regime’s Twitter accounts quoted the couple.  Iran had clearly instructed them to focus all their resources on the PMOI presence in Albania. 

Singleton was seen around the new compound being constructed near the town of Manza in the Albanian province of Durres.  In due course, some Western reporters were spotted in their company. Both Channel 4 News, the Independent and the Guardian ran smear stories targeting the Iranian refugees in Albania, likening them to a cult, living in a tightly secured military compound.  One article even alleged that they had kidnapped and murdered some of their own supporters. The claims were preposterous and easily disproved. Many relatives of the refugees who had been prevented from seeing them in Iraq for years, have flown to Albania and visited the camp. Human rights activists are regular visitors. None of this was reported by Channel 4 News or the Guardian. 

Alerted to the likelihood of these articles appearing, many prominent politicians wrote to Channel 4 News, the Independent and the Guardian warning them that they would be publishing fake news and playing into the hands of the Iranian mullahs and their repressive regime. Our warnings were ignored. The clear assumption must be that appeasing Iran’s leaders has found a much deeper well of sympathy in some parts of Europe’s media than previously thought. Editorial policy that ignores the publication of fake news of this magnitude not only undermines the integrity of journalism, as Der Spiegel has now admitted; it sends a terrible message to thousands of Iranian protesters challenging the regime across the country over the past year.  Abject apologies from Channel 4 News , the Independent and the Guardian are now eagerly awaited.