By Jeff Baron, Staff Writer, America.gov
Writers protest jailing of dozens of reporters in information crackdown
Washington - Reporter Fereshteh Ghazi offers two pictures of what life is like for Iranians in her profession.
"For years, we have become accustomed to thinking of journalism in Iran as similar to walking in a minefield," Ghazi told an audience of about 200 assembled for a night of solidarity with imprisoned Iranian journalists May 8 in Washington.
"The war in Iran is a war on information dissemination," says journalist Fereshteh Ghazi, who has been jailed and beaten for her work.
"But last night when I was speaking to my colleagues in Tehran, they had a very interesting interpretation. They said, 'Actually, it's like our house is sitting on quicksand. The sand is like dry sand that's moving constantly; it's never clear where it's going to be. When we go to bed at night, we don't know where we're going to wake up tomorrow.' ... There's no personal stability. There's no occupational stability. There's no physical stability or safety. There's no safety for our jobs."
Iran's constitution guarantees freedom of the press "except when it is detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public." Yet the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent, nonprofit organization, says Iran is the world's worst offender in jailing journalists. "Iran is now imprisoning more journalists than any other country ever has since Turkey did in the late 1990s," said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, the New York-based group's program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa.
Thirty-five journalists are in jail, Dayem said, and 18 are on furlough. "The numbers, as bad as they are, actually understate the situation," he added, noting that more than 200 journalists have been arrested since the disputed election in June 2009.
"The goal of the Iranian government, as far as we can tell by our research ... is to institute a media blackout," Dayem said.
Messages of support delivered at the May 8 meeting, organized by the Solidarity Committee to Protect the Iranian People's Will, came from writers' groups as well as individual journalists.
"For almost a year, independent journalists in Iran have been subjected to a campaign of harassment, intimidation and violence following last year's disputed presidential election in the country," said a letter from the International Federation of Journalists. The group said it had decided to focus its World Press Freedom Day activities "on raising awareness of the situation of media in Iran and support for the IFJ campaign to free Iranian journalists."
A letter from Article 19-Azad Tribune, a platform for bloggers, journalists and activists, said: "Dozens of journalists - who worked for reformist publications or are perceived to be close to reformists, or who were critical of the authorities, or who reported on human rights violations - have been arbitrarily detained."
Ghazi, now a writer for the RoozOnline website, has worked over the years for a long list of newspapers, 18 of which have been banned. Her résumé includes a stint in jail, with beatings that broke her nose.
Journalists Iran Davar Ardalan, left, and Jacki Lyden say social media have helped Iranians keep information flowing.
The Islamic Republic is afraid of journalists because it is unwilling to allow other voices to dispute its version of the truth, Ghazi said. "That fear is reflected in the heavy sentences that have been handed down to journalists as opposed to political activists and other activists. That's because this regime is extremely frightened of information dissemination among the people and of people being aware of what is going on. And for this reason, the regime is extremely ardent about controlling the flow of information, even droplets of information, general information among the public - because it believes that this information [undermines] its power. And for that reason, we journalists are extremely dangerous people in Iran."
"The war in Iran is a war on information dissemination," Ghazi said.
Jacki Lyden, an American who began covering Iran in the mid-1990s for National Public Radio, recalled the relative openness of the Iranian media then, with small newspapers and magazines springing into existence. "I think we have come full circle," she said. "If I talk about all the intellectuals and writers and people that I met back in the '90s, I think nearly all of them are now in exile, and many of them have been in prison. ... I think what's important now is you can't bottle up that message. You may be able to exile the messengers, but you can't bottle up the message."
Iran Davar Ardalan, an Iranian-American colleague of Lyden's, agreed with her. "That creativity that Iranians have in them, that they have had for centuries, cannot be imprisoned," she said. "The burst of news that's coming through social media - this is all because for centuries Iranians have in their veins the ideas of justice and moderation, the ideas of uncovering hypocrisy that our poets Hafez and Ferdowsi and Rumi have taught us. And so I think that what we see today is that Iranians will find their own creative ways to continue telling their story."
Ardalan recalled the work of her great-grandfather Ali Akbar Davar, who founded the Mard-e azad (A Free Man) newspaper in 1923 and served as minister of justice in the late 1920s and early 1930s. "He believed that a society needs to have journalists who take politicians and the elite to task," she said. "Iranians from the time of Cyrus the Great to the time of Ferdowsi to the time of Ali Akbar Davar to the time of Akbar Ganji have been vocal and wanted to express themselves, and I think this is just something that, with patience and with creativity, we're going to eventually see some results in terms of our desires for civil society and freedom of expression."
Ganji is an Iranian journalist who was imprisoned for six years in Tehran after writing a series of articles in 1999 on the murders of five dissident intellectuals, tying the killings to senior clerics and other government officials.
Ganji said the government crackdown has affected what journalists are willing to do. "Working in journalism in Iran faces two primary issues," he said through an interpreter. "One is censorship by the regime, and the other one is self-censorship by publications themselves, whether it is directors of publications or journalists themselves, for fear of losing their jobs or having their publications shut down or being imprisoned."
Ganji lamented the weakening of journalism as a result. "One of the roles that journalism plays is by exposing corruption in government," he said. "This is also the role that journalism plays even in democracies. Even in democracies, we view political leaders as liars and thieves."
Iran also prevents reporters from looking at people's private lives, Ganji said - even those of public officials, which he said is part of the press's legitimate role. If you are a politician, "there is no private arena for you," Ganji said. "Whatever you do as a person in a position of authority is fair game. ... Your personal life disappears, and a journalist has the duty to expose what seem to be your personal shortcomings."
The Iranian government, he said, is "using every single news outlet to its full force and effect. One is the Friday prayers ... radio and television, every single newspaper. And Internet has just been added. The regime, in order to put its own ideology to regular use by the public, is using every one of these tools."
Ghazi said many journalists are carrying on with their work despite the obstacles. "Even though we seem to be facing one of the darkest eras in Iran's political history and perhaps journalistic history, I have to say that this is the most respectable era that we have for journalism in Iran because my friends and my colleagues refuse to sell their pen. They refuse to sell their dignity," she said.
"Some of my colleagues in Iran have given me a message to give to you about the conditions of their work," Ghazi said. "Many of them have been jailed; many of them have been jailed and released on bail. But those who haven't been arrested and are working, they have a bag prepared for when [police] come to take them. That's how ready they are. They do their work even though they know that at any moment, any car that comes down the street, anyone who rings the doorbell, could be the guy who comes to take them to prison. And they're ready."
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