The footage was remarkable: black-clad women swirling swords, performing acrobatic backflips and running up walls in gravity-defying stunts that could have graced any Matrix movie.
The video story from global news agency Reuters provided an intriguing insight into how Iranian women are seeking empowerment and equality through sports. The only problem was the report’s headline mistakenly described the peaceful Iranian students of the ancient Japanese martial art of Ninjutsu as “assassins”. It proved a costly error.
Although the news agency later corrected the headline, the Iranian authorities on Thursday suspended the press accreditation for its 11 staff in Tehran. It was a serious blow at a time when Iran is a major international topic because of tensions over its nuclear programme.
A day earlier, some of the female Ninjas told Iran’s English language Press TV they were filing lawsuits against Reuters for defamation of character. The thrust of their complaint was that they had taken up the sport to keep fit, but had been tarred as potential killers primed to defend the Islamic republic to the death against Western and Israeli invaders.
One woman said the report could damage their chances of participating in international tournaments because “Reuters is considered by many to be a reliable source.”
Raheleh Davoudzadeh said: “We want the whole world to know that Reuters has lied about us.”
The spat highlights Iran’s sensitivity about its image and its suspicions that Western media are determined to portray the Islamic republic as backward and violent. Iran is particularly paranoid about Britain, which it brands a “colonial old fox” that pulls the strings of the “Great Satan” America.
But the Iranian regime has also exploited the report to crack down on the few non- Iranian journalists still working in Tehran, some analysts said.
Iran’s impressively nimble women Ninjas were first featured in a Press TV report broadcast on 29 January.
It was another ten days, however, before Reuters picked up the story with its own video and slideshow. Its headline read: “Thousands of female Ninjas train as Iran’s Assassins.”
After a complaint by the women’s Ninjutsu school, Reuters corrected the headline to read: “Three thousand women Ninjas train in Iran.”
The agency insisted there was no malicious intent behind its mistake. “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,” Reuters editor-in-chief, Stephen J Adler, said.
“In addition, we have conducted an internal review and have taken appropriate steps to prevent a recurrence,” he said.
Reuters, he added, was in discussions with Iranian authorities in an effort to restore the accreditation of its staff in Tehran.
Reuters enjoys an excellent reputation for accuracy and impartiality. It had managed to maintain its bureau in Tehran after Iran’s disputed presidential elections in June 2009 which was followed by a crackdown on Iranian journalists.
Visas for Western reporters have since been very hard to come by. The activities of those allowed in on rare visits are strictly monitored and curtailed.