This article was originally published in the International Herald Tribune
Dear Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,
Your government and supporters think of you as God’s representative on earth. Your official title is “Supreme Leader,” so you are responsible for all the wrongs and rights that happen in our country.
You have also been called the “No. 1 enemy of journalists in the world” because your government has arrested dozens of them since the presidential elections in June 2009. More than 60 are still in your prisons.
I was unfortunate enough to know firsthand how your agents treat journalists. I was kept in your jail for 118 days simply for being a reporter. For much of that time I was tortured.
But I do not hold any grudges. I am writing out of concern for my colleagues and the future of our country.
“Our future society will be a free society and all the elements of oppression, cruelty, and force will be destroyed.” It is not I who am saying this. It was your predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini, who said those words to a reporter from Der Spiegel on November 7, 1978. The only accusation against many reporters who are languishing in Iranian jails is that they held a mirror to the actions of the Iranian government. They did not want to overthrow it. They never took up arms. All of them did their job as peacefully as journalists elsewhere around the world.
Your government issued me a press card. But I was coerced to make a false televised confession admitting that I was acting as an agent of evil Western media. I was forced to say the media are trying to overthrow the Islamic government. I was beaten and threatened with execution to make that confession. I was beaten again after the show because I did not perform as well as my interrogator would have liked. Yes, Ayatollah Khamenei, I had to apologise to you on television to stop my torturer from punching me in the head.
I had no personal animosity against you or any other Iranian official. I reported peaceful demonstrations in the streets of Iran because it was the news of the day. Neither I, nor any of my colleagues, instigated the demonstrations against your president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Our job as journalists is to report the truth as accurately as we can. Even if some of us made mistakes, our punishment should never have been jail and torture.
Ayatollah Khamenei, next time you see a reporter confessing to his or her “crimes” and asking you for mercy on your television, remember: He or she has been tortured in your jails.
Many a time my torturer told me that he kicked me to make you happy. He told me, “Each time I slap you I can feel that the Master is smiling at me.” Ayatollah Khamenei, I think you are responsible for what happened to me.
It is getting late for you to repair the damage done to our country. But it is still not too late. You can start by releasing imprisoned journalists.
I know that I will make many people who are fed up with your regime — especially my fellow Iranians in the diaspora — angry by saying this, but most Iranian journalists are not interested in a regime change. Most journalists, even those who are very critical of the current government, believe they can live and work in Iran even under censorship.
Many of us were frustrated with your Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. We did not like to see our press cards revoked and to be barred from reporting one event or another. We accepted these restrictions as occupational hazards. We knew that we were not in a Western democracy. Our only request to our government was not to imprison, torture or kill us.
You must be aware of the lengthy sentences for imprisoned journalists. You must know that your judges are charging journalists with “fighting against Allah.”
I have heard that you read a novel a week. You must have read George Orwell’s “1984.” It is quite a popular book in Iran. Some of the sentences imposed by your judges on my colleagues are right off the pages of that book. How can you justify six years imprisonment, five years of internal exile and a lifetime of deprivation of social and political activities imposed on Ahmad Zeidabadi, a freelance journalist? I am sure the judge who imposed the sentence wanted to make you happy because Zeidabadi wrote a few articles in which he criticized you.
Ayatollah Khamenei, you may aspire to become as popular as Ayatollah Khomeini was in February 1979 when he triumphantly returned to Iran. People would not have adored him as they did had he called for mass arrests and mass trials of his enemies, as you have. He became popular for telling a Reuters reporter on Oct. 26, 1978, “The foundation of our Islamic government is based on freedom of dialogue and will fight against any kind of censorship.”
Do you think you can stop dissent by throwing those who report it in jail? I’m not sure what your advisers are telling you. But we live in an era in which you cannot stop the flow of information.
Even though your government has banned satellite television, a great number of Iranians still get their news from the BBC and Voice of America by using illegal satellite dishes. Currently your police may be able to find and punish dish owners. But soon the dishes will become smaller and cheaper and everyone will be able to have one in the safety of their homes.
By arresting accredited journalists your government has made every Iranian a citizen journalist. Your government has blocked most Web sites that are critical of your government, but Iranians have learned to use filter-busters to access them. Your government has narrowed the Internet bandwidth and has passed cyber crime laws, but that has not stopped your compatriots from using the Internet to inform the world about the situation of their country. YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are full of the latest news about the crimes of your regime.
You may feel safe in your modest house, protected by thousands of revolutionary guards. But beyond them the world is changing. Iran is changing. In 1978, as the shah was doing his best to stifle his people, Ayatollah Khomeini promised that “in an Islamic Iran the media will have the freedom to express all Iran’s realities and events.”
Hoping they could realize that promise, Iranians rose up and overthrew the shah. Ayatollah Khamenei, those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.
Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian reporter for Newsweek, was imprisoned in Tehran from June to October 2009.