PayPal blocks donations to The Grayzone that mention Iran (and free speech)

Small donations to The Grayzone were delayed and reversed by PayPal because they mentioned the word “Iran” in messages praising our coverage of the US conflict. At the same time, Facebook censored a factual Grayzone video reporting on Hezbollah, Iran and Trump.

By Ben Norton

Update: This article was updated on January 12 with more examples of PayPal rejecting donations to The Grayzone that mention Iran — and free speech.

Following the US government’s assassination of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, PayPal has delayed and blocked numerous small donations to The Grayzone that mentioned this website’s news coverage of Iran.

At the same time, social media giant Facebook has censored a The Grayzone video reporting on the US government’s escalation against Iran and its ally Hezbollah.

In 2010, PayPal froze donations to WikiLeaks, the whistleblowing journalism organization whose publisher Julian Assange is currently being imprisoned and tortured. The online banking company also permanently suspended WikiLeaks’ account.

Now independent journalism websites like The Grayzone are suffering from blockages imposed by PayPal that appear directly linked to Washington’s aggressive actions in the Middle East.

On January 3, a reader tried to make a donation of $10 to The Grayzone through PayPal. The small donor, a US citizen who lives in California, wrote the following message to accompany the donation: “Thanks for all your excellent work and especially the Gray Zone’s coverage of the murder of Soleimani and war with Iran. You fellows are so insightful and brilliant.”

The Grayzone promptly received an email from the tech company stating that the donation was “pending.” The message noted, “To comply with government regulations, PayPal is required to review certain transactions.”

The next day, the small donor notified The Grayzone that she had gotten an email from the PayPal Compliance Department demanding that they “provide the following information”:

• “An explanation of the reference to ‘Iran.’

• The purpose of this payment, including a complete and detailed explanation of what is intended to be paid for.

• A sales receipt or other documentation pertaining to this transaction.

• Full name, address, and current location of the Beneficiary of the payment.”

Then, on January 6, PayPal notified The Grayzone that the donation “has been reversed.”

PayPal donation reversed Iran sanctions

“I was so impressed with your coverage of the U.S. murder of Soleimani that I made a $10 donation to you via PayPal and made laudatory remarks about your coverage of Iran in the comments section,” the small donor wrote to The Grayzone. “Today, I got the following message from PayPal wanting me to go to their site and explain why I made a reference to Iran.”

The supporter added, “Really? Am I now subject to surveillance because I used the word ‘Iran’? Why do you continue to use PayPal which long ago proved itself to be yet another corporate totalitarian?”

The donor said they decided to close their PayPal account, adding, “I do not owe PayPal an explanation of why I used the word ‘Iran.'”

The incident was strange. But it was not the only time The Grayzone faced difficulties when receiving donations.

Second frozen PayPal donation in two days

On January 5, The Grayzone received another message from a reader. This supporter said they had tried to give $25 to the news website, but the tech company froze their donation as well.

The company sent both the donor and The Grayzone a message reading, “To comply with government regulations, PayPal is required to review certain transactions. The payment you sent is currently being reviewed and we will complete this process within 72 hours.”

PayPal donation pending Iran sanctions

The donor commented, “I have never before had paypal delay a payment or donation. So this seems to be targeted at you guys. The ACLU should be looking into this. Good luck!”

The Grayzone asked the supporter if they used the word “Iran” in the message accompanying their small donation. They replied that they had.

“I was praising the very informed, very rational two-hour videocast you guys broadcast,” the donor said, referring to a Grayzone discussion of US policy on Iran and President Trump’s murder of top general Qassem Soleimani.

More frozen PayPal donations that mention Iran — and free speech

The blocked donations continued in the days going forward.

On January 12, PayPal froze yet another donation of $10 to The Grayzone from a US citizen, because the accompanying message mentioned Iran.

The day before, in a truly Orwellian episode, the online banking company halted a $10 donation from a reader in France.

“This is to inform Paypal that I am making this donation to The Grayzone for the sake of free speech and balanced reporting, particularly in regard to recent events in Iraq and Iran!” wrote the donor.

The use of that last word caused the payment to be flagged by PayPal, and it did not go through.

PayPal Grayzone donation Iran free speech

Facebook censors The Grayzone video reporting on Iran and Hezbollah

While PayPal has been blocking small donations to The Grayzone that mention its Iran coverage, another Big Tech corporation is censoring the news website’s reporting on Iran and Hezbollah.

On January 9, this reporter received a notice on Facebook that the company had censored a factual, journalistic video that featured public speeches given by Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei and Lebanese Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah, showing how they had called for protecting civilians, while US President Donald Trump warned that he would attack cultural sites inside Iran.

The video did not contain commentary or opinion. It simply presented video of world leaders speaking. But without any explanation, Facebook asserted that our video violated its “Community Standards on dangerous individuals and organizations.”

Big Tech corporations and US sanctions

The Grayzone contacted both PayPal and Facebook with requests for comment. The companies have not replied, as of publication.

It appears that PayPal automates the process of reviewing donations to make sure that they conform with US government sanctions, highlighting particular keywords like “Iran.” Apparently, the company’s dragnet is so wide it is now cracking down on independent journalists who report on Middle East affairs and rely on donations to sustain their work.

The Grayzone faced similar difficulties this August in Venezuela, which is enduring a US government economic blockade that has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians.

When a reporter with The Grayzone tried to pay a Venezuelan national using the money transfer app Zelle, they received an email from their bank’s sanctions compliance department requesting more information about the transaction — even though it was a payment to a private Venezuelan civilian who had no relationship at all to the government.

These tightening, seemingly arbitrary restrictions by large tech corporations show how aggressive US government sanctions on foreign nations are stifling speech and threatening independent journalism at home.