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By Index on Censorship / 29 March 2010
Maziar Bahari was imprisoned by the Iranian regime for attempting to report on 2009’s disputed election. He describes his ordeal, and suggests what can be done to help journalists jailed by the Islamic Republic
Being a journalist in Iran is one of the most insecure jobs in a country run by one of the most insecure governments in the world. The Islamic Republic has made journalists its prime target. More than a hundred journalists have been arrested since the disputed presidential elections last summer. It’s very difficult to put a precise figure to the number in prison because it’s been a revolving door. They arrest a group of journalists one day and they let others go the next day. The government is trying hard to prove that it is in control and in charge of the lives of each and every citizen.
In the age of the Internet and satellite television the Iranian government is trying hard to change the tide of history. It wants to take Iran back to the era of shortwave radio and terrestrial television, media that it could easily censor and control. A wise government would listen to the voices of its own people. The Iranian government is shooting the messenger.
“You should not break a mirror because it shows your faults. You should change yourself,” goes a Persian saying. By breaking the mirror the Islamic Republic is losing its legitimacy as a religious government and a government chosen by the people. The actions of the government of Iran are far from Islamic principles of fairness and kindness. Since last June, the government has also been ignoring the people’s peaceful demands for reforms within the framework of the regime.
In fact the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has decided to do away with all democratic pretensions and establish a militarised dictatorship with the help of the Revolutionary Guards. It is an attempt which will ultimately be defeated by the Iranian people. The current Khamenei/Guards project may take a few years or even decades to fail but the Iranian government will finally relent and accept the demands of the Iranian people for democracy, human rights and freedom of expression.
How did we get here?
After the victory of the popular Islamic Revolution in 1979, the new government managed to maintain a certain level of legitimacy. The traditional religious masses supported the government. While the government stifled many voices of dissent it allowed many reformist newspapers, opposition activists, human rights lawyers and journalists to survive and continue criticizing the government with a certain degree of impunity.
The regime did so because the gap between the educated elite and the traditional religious masses was so wide that the government did not feel really threatened by the opposition to its ineffective and authoritarian governance. The opposition had very little influence on the thinking and actions of the people. In fact when the mouthpieces of the government ridiculed the opposition for being elitist, they were telling the truth.
The Digital Age, the Dawn of a New Era
In the pre-internet era, the increasingly educated Iranians did not have a chance to communicate with the outside world or even with each other.
Internet and satellite television brought the knowledge that was in the monopoly of a selected group of western educated elite to a greater number of Iranians. The gap between the elite and the masses was quickly disappearing. And that frightened the government.
Fighting the Future
The protest of millions of people against Ahmadinejad’s re-election in June 2009 was a clear manifestation of this narrowing gap. I was on the streets of Tehran during those days. The demonstrators were not all secular, educated, westernised individuals. They were factory workers, housewives and farmers.
In the absence of any clear vision for the future of the country and looking for a quick fix the government chose to blame the media for stirring people. The government particularly tried to incriminate Western media for trying to create a velvet revolution such those in Czechoslovakia, Ukraine and Georgia in the past. After the June 2009 presidential elections the takeover of the government by the Guards gained a new momentum. They took charge of all the cultural activities in the country as well as the intelligence apparatus. The Guards started doing what they do best: suppression dissent through violence.
The Guards arrested me nine days after the election. My interrogator told me, “There is no difference between culture, journalism and intelligence.” He said, “You gather and report information. That is exactly what a spy does.”
For 118 days in 2009 I witnessed an ignorant confused regime trying to fight its own people through sheer paranoia. During those 118 days I heard (because I was mostly blindfolded) so many ridiculous ideas and outlandish interpretations of what is going on in the world by my interrogators that at the end nothing surprised me.
For some reason or another, my interrogator had a fascination with New Jersey. I’m not sure why, I never managed to ask him why, but to him, New Jersey sounded like paradise on earth. He maybe was a big fan of the Sopranos or Jersey Shore, I don’t know, but he thought that whatever happens to people in paradise, including eating the forbidden fruit, copulating with as many men and women as you want, orgies and drinking alcohol was happening in New Jersey. He was upset that I had been in New Jersey, and he had never been. So I was not only a spy, I was a spy that had been to New Jersey.
Of course the memory of those days is funny in hindsight. When you are in a dark interrogation room and you’re blindfolded and you’re subjected to beatings and tortures, as I was and as many of my colleagues in Iran are, your interrogator’s ignorance is far from being funny.
What I saw was tantamount to a scene in Martin Scorsese’s Casino, when a man’s head is squeezed to the point of explosion in a vise. The narrowing gap between the masses and the elite is that vise. The regime reacts as thuggish and violently as those mobsters in Scorsese’s Casino.
What the West can do?
I can say these words on this platform because of the support I received from the international community. I was lucky enough to be working for Newsweek. My colleagues went beyond their call of duty and rallied all their contacts in the international media, and among the diplomatic community, to call for my release.
I was also lucky and blessed by the support of organisations like Index on Censorship, Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Sans Frontieres who are advocating the situations of the imprisoned journalists or journalists under duress by other countries.
The fact that I was finally freed (albeit on bail) shows that the Iranian government is not as indifferent to negative publicity as it pretends to be. Iran is not North Korea. Iran needs the help of international community to survive. The Iranian government right now is using international satellite technology to send its message of hate. It is using the same broadcasting laws and regulations as the West to have the offices of its foreign broadcasters in different countries. The world community should prevent the Iranian government from benefiting from what it denies its own people. I was really happy about the European community’s decision this week to penalise Iran for jamming satellite transmissions. I hope they follow these new measures with more urgency and vigour than in the past.
Supporting the free flow of information to and from Iran is investing in Iran’s future. It narrows the gap between Iranians and the rest of the world. It is the quickest shortcut to democracy for Iranians.
In the meantime Khamenei and the guards, as well as their stooge Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will try their best to suffocate the voices of dissent through brute force. Many lives will perish and be lost in the process. There will be periods of silence and days of turbulence. But in the end, as Prophet Mohammad said, “An infidel can rule a nation for a long time. But an oppressor will never succeed in doing so.”
This is a keynote speech given by Maziar Bahari at the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards on 25 March. To support the campaign for the release of Iranian journalists from prison go to /www.oursocietywillbeafreesociety.org