Forbidden Iran: How to Report When You're Banned

  • Share
  • Read Later

Iranian security personnel ride past burning debris in Tehran

Like other journalists who work for foreign media organizations, I was banned early on from reporting on the protests against the official victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. First, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance sent a fax prohibiting me from reporting on the streets. Then I got a call to return my already annulled press card in person. Next, I received an anonymous phone call from a person with a strangely friendly voice, telling me, "There are powerful forces out there that do not want you to continue your work."

By the end of last week, I was cut off from most forms of communication altogether: mobile-phone text-messaging had already been blocked on the day of the election, and as the week went on, the entire mobile network was cut off from about late afternoon until midnight, the time when most demonstrations were being staged, making information-gathering from would-be participants impossible. Later, Internet connections were reduced to snail speed, and satellite television was almost entirely jammed. It was becoming impossible to report on events. The only "news" left unblocked was that propagated by state television.

Everyone began turning to regular phone calls and e-mail, then the only means of communication among the majority of Iranians, apart from word of mouth at rallies. I started to obtain information about events from family, friends and people on the streets and in shops and taxis. But at least once I found myself caught up in street demonstrations and clashes when trying to cross town. On June 18, when about 200,000 Iranians held a mourning march for those killed in clashes, I walked past three chador-clad girls who were holding posters in front of their faces in order to conceal their identities. One of the posters read, "My friends have been attacked and killed in the girls' dormitory." For most bystanders, this was the first time they learned that two of the five students killed by paramilitary Basij on June 14 were female.

One of the girls, who identified herself as Zeinab, 26, nervously pulled her chador down to cover as much of her face as she could. She explained that she felt a religious duty to attend the protest. "How dare these men who call themselves protectors of religion enter a girls' dormitory in the first place?" Zeinab said. Her friend Sara, 27, added, "Our problem goes beyond the elections. They are ruining our religion. They chant 'Heydar, Heydar' [a name for the Prophet Muhammad's cousin Imam Ali, a central Shi'ite leader] when they kill these innocent people. That's terrifying! They feel justified in the name of Islam!"

Farther on, a student was standing a step up on a road divider, holding a poster that read, "220 Students Still Being Held," and on and on, the rally was like an information alley. "Tomorrow nothing is on, gather Saturday 4 p.m. Azadi!" was an oft-repeated mantra.

Many people I talked to at the protest said they were there because they wanted Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei to consider their large number before giving his June 19 sermon, which many believed would be decisive for the course of the country. But at Friday prayers the Ayatullah took a hard line, disappointing millions who had been hoping for leniency in the form of a recount or even a re-election. He said the election had been fair and that people should rest assured the "Islamic republic does not betray the votes of the people." Khamenei also warned that there would be zero tolerance for street rallies.

For many, the message was ominous. After the leader's speech, in which he blamed the unrest on foreign countries as well as "enemies in various media, which mostly belong to the malicious and evil Zionists," I decided it was time to leave. Reporting Iran over the past week has been a dangerous enterprise for everyone, but I knew that as a dual-national on freelance assignment for TIME, I was a particularly soft target. Soon after, other journalists were expelled or detained, including a reporter for Newsweek.

On the way to the airport on Friday night, I witnessed how national television can affect ordinary Iranians, especially in the absence of other sources of information. When I started a conversation with my driver, he returned to me, almost verbatim, parts of the leader's speech as well as news reports that I, too, had seen on state TV. He said the leader was right, that it was impossible to rig 11 million votes and that those creating the chaos were foreign agitators. "The students claim five were killed in a raid to their dormitories. They showed one of the students who they claimed was dead. He was doing just fine and wasn't even a resident of that dormitory," the middle-aged driver from the southern city of Yazd said with evident sincerity.

The pressure is relentless on those who do not take the official line. Only a few days after criticizing the attacks on his university's dormitories, the director of Tehran University appeared on national television to retract the criticism. After investigating the reports, he said, he found that all but one of the students who were originally said to have died there weren't even at the dormitory and were alive. The program then cut to a shot of a student called Mohsen Imani, who said he was alive and well and that he despised people misusing his identity.

But at the grocery store in midtown Tehran where I happened to watch the program, none of the four others present seemed to buy the story. "Look, the guy looks like a total Basiji. Besides, there are a ton of people with that name," said the store owner.

After Friday prayers, it was clear the state would deal harshly with demonstrators, and yet some 50,000 to 60,000 protesters were reported to have gathered at Azadi Square on June 20. One friend told me that police were preventing people from reaching the site, shouting at them to get back into subway stations and beating them back into adjoining streets and alleys. Based on most accounts, Saturday's clashes had the highest number of casualties. Although Iranian state media have reported between 10 and 13 deaths, chain e-mails distributed by government opposition report more than 20 deaths alone in Tehran and have the number of deaths last week across the country at 249.

Not surprisingly, state television has not been reporting the violence meted out to demonstrators by special police forces and paramilitary Basij. In fact, in one program on the victims, it showed three badly injured young men who looked like Basijis. One of them said, "I was beaten to a pulp just because I wear a beard." Mourning the Basij as victims is one of state television's greatest distortions of truth. Legally unaccountable and equipped with police gear like shields, batons and, in some cases, Colts, the Basij have not held back in their violence against demonstrators.

All that has led to a perceived weakening of the chief nemesis of the Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the richest men in Iran and the most powerful political force behind Mir-Hossein Mousavi. With hundreds of leading reformists and students arrested, and communication almost entirely in the hands of the government, it appears that the only way the opposition can continue is if the government loses control over the streets. But with that is a very big "if."

On June 20, Mousavi is reported to have shown up at a rally dressed in a funeral shroud, declaring his readiness for martyrdom, a hugely emotional symbol among Shi'ite Muslims. The information was distributed by e-mail, and like most other information in Iran these days, its veracity is hard to prove. But with so much arrayed against him and his allies, martyrdom may be the most powerful weapon Mousavi has left.