Courage Can Mean Pushing Gradually Against Boundaries in Iran
‘Courage is not always about overcoming immediate dangers or reaching immediate ends.’
"This is our responsibility," said an Iranian journalist right after signing a letter to the prosecutor general of Tehran to stop the violence against imprisoned journalists. A week before the letter was written, in December 2004, I was released from jail. Altogether, 128 of my colleagues had asked the prosecutor general to stop intimidating imprisoned journalists in order to obtain confession letters. Such letters are used by the Iranian judiciary to instill fear among journalists and political activists.
I was one of the journalists who was coerced into writing a confession letter. And I did agree to write such a letter after spending 55 days in solitary confinement, experiencing irregular psychological pressures as part of a terrifying interrogation process, and losing all connection to the outside world. I agreed to do this so I would be released, knowing full well that the public would not believe such a letter to be true. This tactic is used by the Islamic regime regularly with prominent politicians, intellectuals and journalists who strongly insist on doing their job, even if what they say or write is in opposition to the government's position. Their goal is to inspire fear among their colleagues. When used against journalists, the authorities believe they destroy their solidarity while also injuring them personally.
The story about my letter, however, received a great deal of coverage both within Iran and outside of it. When it was published, former President Mohammad Khatami established an investigative committee to look into allegations of torture and mistreatment in Iranian prisons. Normally political prisoners shy away from attending such committees out of fear; usually, they remain silent, weary of the consequences of revealing what happens inside Iran's notorious jails. However, I decided to attend the committee hearing with my friend Roozbeh Mirebrahimi. We gave testimony about what had happened to us, though we were terrified of what might happen as a result. Only a few years before a number of secular writers had been murdered by the intelligence services while undergoing similar arrest and interrogation methods.
Our testimony shocked everybody. The international community objected strongly to what had gone on inside detention centers, and the head of Iran's judiciary met with us in a private gathering and promised to stop such violations. And the words we spoke to this presidential committee had an impressive impact on reforming Iran's detention methods by clarifying the mistreatment of journalists who are detained. Many politicians told us that the publicity surrounding our testimony had made it incredibly difficult for the government to coerce journalists into writing confession letters. "It takes a lot of effort, energy and risks for them do it again," said Mashallah Shams ol-Vaezin, a prominent Iranian journalist who has himself been jailed before for more than 10 months, "now that everybody knows what happens inside detention centers and that these letters are worthless."
Differing interpretations of law, blurred professional lines, and a general lack of trust toward the news media have turned journalism into a risky and dangerous profession in Iran. During the past 20 years many Iranian journalists have been jailed, tortured, pressured and fired from their jobs. At the same time, however, the number of people whoare entering this risky profession has increased dramatically. And that is why journalism seems insecure, risky and dangerous but also a task respected by the people. The motivating force that pushes journalists forward is the people's demand for news, as well as their respect and appreciation.
I used to work at a newsroom in Iran with six other journalists. They were all intimidated by officials and constantly in danger of losing their jobs. But most of them, when they faced intimidation, came back to work after a while and continued writing, more seriously than in the past. As journalists, they believed in their commitment to tell the truth and cover the critical areas, but for many of them this was not possible to do. In Iran, many subjects that journalists would want to cover exist in the forbidden red zone: religious laws, clerics, Islamic foundations, high-ranking officials, corruption, bad governance, social problems, foreign policy, and so on. Though it is very hard sometimes to understand how journalists can do their jobs and keep themselves away from danger, this is not an excuse for many journalists not to cover these difficult topics. And when they do, journalists try to be careful, but none of them is safe.
A Particular Kind of Courage
Consequently, journalists frequently pass over these zones. Seven years ago, while many secular writers were being murdered and fear was dominant, Akbar Ganji, an investigative journalist, wrote a series of bold articles in which he exposed the Iranian intelligence ministry's involvement in perpetuating these murders. The popularity of his writings forced the president to establish an investigative committee. This generated a public dialogue, albeit a censored one, on the issue of political murders. The government was finally forced to reform the intelligence service. Ganji, however, was sentenced to six years in prison for his writings. He never gave up and showed how journalism could effectively bring differences to the society.
Unlike Ganji, many other journalists shy away from such investigative work and write about social issues and matters that relate more to the daily lives of the people. Despite government censorship, they do their best to expose these problems. Often they shed light on the unknown, dark and hidden parts of the society and generate a public space for dialogue by bringing social and political issues to the surface.
These Iranian journalists show courage in their commitment to truth and understanding the dynamic of Iranian society today, through the motivation they have for change and improvement and by their persistence. Journalists who cover critical social topics take responsibility for what they report. With this approach, journalism is becoming more than a profession; it is a valuable tool for social change. As this happens, the people in Iran provide support for journalists by creating an atmosphere in which it becomes possible to cover more dangerous topics.
Courage is not always about overcoming immediate dangers or reaching immediate ends. It can be based on journalists assuming strong responsibility and commitment to finding truth in ways that are possible for them. Iranian journalists report on poverty, prostitution, unemployment, drug addiction, crime and corruption in a country where any kind of criticism is considered to be "painting a black picture of the Islamic regime." They walk this thin line by connecting with grassroots organizations and employing a constructive tone. As a result, they've written many stories that have left deep impressions on the society and led to some kinds of change. Journalists, as an Iranian saying goes, "walk on the edge of the blade."
Moreover, in defining courage among the Iranian journalists, one needs to understand the nature of the government, society and the media. Sometimes even reporting on cultural issues, such as writing movie and book reviews, can be considered threatening, since the Islamic Republic of Iran believes that foreignenemies, particularly the United States, are unleashing a "cultural invasion" on Islam. Thus journalists in Iran are faced with danger no matter what topic they are working on, so the work they do — while considered routine and ordinary in other places — can demand courage from them.
In the absence of freedom of expression, with suppression of civil society and political activism, journalists have become the nation's pioneers in defending human rights and promoting social change. In Iran's current political atmosphere, the news media play the role of political parties, civil society organizations, and educational facilities. These overloaded responsibilities put onto journalists, in an environment with an inappropriate proportion between the commitment required and freedom allowed, provide a situation that makes courage the determining factor in the lives of successful journalists.
Omid Memarian, an Iranian journalist and blogger, is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Human Rights Watch honored him with its 2005 Human Rights Defender Award.