Iran's Conscience

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Akbar Ganji is no pop idol or sports champion. But nearly everywhere he goes, Iran's No. 1 muckraking journalist is mobbed. When he attended a lecture at Tehran University recently, students whistled and chanted his name until he went on stage and gave a speech. Afterward, a throng of admirers, some asking for his autograph, swept him to his car. When he covered an election rally featuring the country's most popular reform politicians, it was Ganji, not the pols, who brought down the house. "Ganji! Ganji!" the crowd roared when he arrived. "You're our hero!"

He is an unlikely one. Once a functionary in the Revolutionary Guards and Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance, Ganji, 40, is now calling Iran's Islamic authorities to account for human rights violations and political mistakes as no other Iranian journalist has ever before dared to do. He has exposed death squads and has broken the taboo, observed even by most of the growing number of pro-reform newspapers, on challenging high authorities by name. His barbs, in fact, helped cause a major setback in last month's parliamentary elections for one of the Islamic regime's sturdiest figures, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

After Ganji led a barrage of unprecedented questioning of Rafsanjani's decades in power, the former Iranian President ran a weak 30th in the contest for Tehran's 30 seats, jeopardizing his bid to become the next powerful Majlis speaker. If nothing else, the humiliation of a top conservative gave an added psychological boost to President Mohammed Khatami's reform camp: the latest vote count gives it some two-thirds of 290 seats.

But Ganji's writings carry risks. He regularly receives anonymous threats, but continues his daily routine of passing by the Tehran newspapers Sobh Emrouz, Fath and Asr-e-Azadegan that publish his stories. "I guess I'm a troublemaker," Ganji says with a laugh. But in a more sober vein he adds: "I call it playing with death. One day something might happen to me. This fight for reform is lawful, but it has its price." In addition to the outpouring of public support, Ganji is encouraged by the steady flow of leaks he receives about the death squads. He won't name his sources, but likens them to the insiders who provided Woodward and Bernstein with information for their Watergate exposes.

Ganji's scoops began appearing early last year with articles tying Iran's feared Intelligence Ministry to the serial murders of dozens of intellectuals, organized crime figures and people killed apparently because they knew too much. In what Ganji calls "disclosure by drips," he published one article after another explaining how shadowy operatives selected their victims and executed them, like the university professor whose body was dumped on the outskirts of Tehran after he was killed with skull-fracturing blows to his head. Ganji avoids accusing specific officials of ordering the murders, tantalizing readers by allegorically pinning the blame on "Mr. Master Key" and the "grey eminences"--widely seen in Tehran as references to a former Intelligence Minister and other Iranian leaders who protected him.

Ganji gleefully cast such devices aside, however, when former President Rafsanjani joined the race for parliament earlier this year. Intent on bringing the powerful Rafsanjani "down to earth," he embarked on a searing campaign in his newspaper columns, demanding that the candidate explain what he knew about the killings as well as why the eight-year war with Iraq, which killed more than 300,000 Iranians, was prolonged "unnecessarily." In confronting Rafsanjani so brashly, Iranian journalists agree, Ganji almost single-handedly removed the taboo on demanding accountability of Iranian leaders. "In the history of Iranian journalism, there is hardly a precedent for Ganji's bravery," says Ahmed Bourghani, a former Islamic Culture Ministry official. "He has pulled back the curtain."

Not surprisingly, Rafsanjani has denounced Ganji's writings as lies. Even some of Iran's liberals, fearing a hard-line backlash, believe that Ganji often goes too far. "We need to make sure that our approach is measured," says Morteza Mardihah, a columnist for Asr-e-Azadegan. "With Ganji, it is like passing a car accident. Sometimes reality is too harsh--and unnecessary to look at."

To the delight of most reformers, however, Ganji, the son of a service station attendant, refuses to avert his eyes. A street activist during Khomeini's revolution, an avid reader of Western philosophy and an unabashed partisan of President Khatami, he now insists that building Iran's democracy entails acknowledging the Islamic regime's past mistakes. Whether Ganji is able to continue his campaign is a crucial test for Iran's reformers against the hard-line conservatives who maintain tight control over the security forces and judicial system. Few in Iran will be surprised if he runs afoul of the Islamic courts--he has already served a jail term in 1997 for a speech that the religious authorities said branded Iran's Islamic system as a form of fascism. As Ganji is well aware, that sort of talk is not music to an ayatullah's ears.

With reporting by Azadeh Moaveni/Tehran