Iran's Female Ninjas File a Lawsuit: Not Every Iranian Is Out to Kill Us

A spat between Reuters and Iranian state media reveals, and maybe worsens, how the West and Iran mistrust one another.

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Some of Iran's female ninjas pause during a practice session / Reuters

Iranian women do not have it very easy in life, which is maybe why 3,500 of them decided to learn the martial art of ninjutsu, modeled after Japan's ancient ninjas. The practice allows them empowerment and independence in a society that wants to deny them both. But now Iran's female ninjas face another hardship: Western media portraying them as "assassins" who want to kill "foreign invaders." They're not, and the media fight over the mischaracterization reveals -- and maybe worsens -- how the West and Iran misunderstand one another.

In February, Reuters sent Caren Firouz to photograph an all-women ninjutsu gym in the town of Karaj. His photos (which we also ran) appeared in a slideshow on Reuters' website. Now, Iranian state-run outlet PressTV says that several of those ninjas are suing Reuters for defamation. The Reuters story, according to PressTV, "accused [the women] of being assassins" whom the state is training "to kill any possible foreign invaders." There's no reason to think that these female athletes are actually state-run killers.

It's hard to untangle what actually happened, both because PressTV is notoriously unreliable (ironically, their story uses stolen Reuters photos) and because Reuters is oddly mum about the incident. Reps for the news outlet refused to answer as to whether or not they are really being sued by the Iranian women. When I asked whether there was any truth to PressTV's report, a Reuters rep emailed this:

The only thing I can confirm is that there was indeed an error in a Reuters video script that was promptly corrected. Here's our statement on it: 

Reuters always strives for the highest standards in journalism and our policy is to acknowledge errors honestly and correct them promptly when they occur. We acknowledge this error occurred and regard it as a very serious matter. It was promptly corrected the same day it came to our attention. In addition, we have conducted an internal review and have taken appropriate steps to prevent a recurrence.

The "video script" error could refer to a Reuters video report on the ninjas. Though I couldn't find the video, indicating Reuters may have pulled it from their site, PressTV aired what they claim is a Reuters video. In the clip, a narrator says the athletes "could be the West's worst enemy" and calls them "ninja assassins."

Reuters does have an excellent reputation, and their reporter Caren Firouz is himself Iranian, so it's difficult to imagine why a Reuters report would make this mistake. Still, other British news outlets picked up on the Reuters story as reporting that the athletes are actually assassins poised to kill foreign invaders. When I pointed out to the PR rep that Reuters had said nothing to suggest that PressTV's version of events was anything less than 100% accurate, and even when I volunteered that maybe Firouz had called them "assassins" as a joke that PressTV had misconstrued, the answer was silence.

Whatever happened, the incident is likely a product of the same sad misperceptions that it will also help to entrench: the Iranian belief that Westerners maliciously distort Iran to make its people seem like murderous cave-dwellers, and the Western belief that Iranians are angrily and violently anti-Western. Believe it or not, sometimes Iranian people do things for reasons other than hatred of the West. And not every Iranian is out to kill us. A significant number of Iranians actually think the West is pretty OK.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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