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Journalists in Iran Caught in the Crossfire as Reformers Struggle with Hard Liners - 2003-08-18

Insaf Ali Hedayat was covering recent demonstrations in Tabriz, Iran, when he noticed a group in civilian clothes closely observing him. He was uneasy but kept working.

Then they moved, 17 altogether, arrested him and took him to prison for conspiring against the state by providing interviews to the BBC, Voice of America and Radio Farda. For 28 days in various jails, he was regularly beaten. His head was covered so he could not see his assailants who cursed him as they hit him.

Mr. Hedayat describes this treatment in a detailed letter he sent to President Khatami after his release. Here is a portion translated into English: “Mr. President, they beat you in such a way that it does not leave any trace. But I assure you it is very dreadful. Later when you are given a medical examination, there is no sign of the beating. Mr. President, I cannot spare you the details. If you had received one of these blows on your testicles, you would understand the pain. Your breath almost stops. This I must tell you.”

Mr. Hedayat protested to his tormentors: "I'm a journalist." To which they responded: "No, you're a traitor." Even though they had ransacked his office and carted off papers, cash and even his mobile phone, they kept demanding information, as he tells President Khatami in his letter:

“In the middle of the night I was blindfolded and taken to another office for questioning. The interrogator was more civilized. He did not beat me. He asked me what foreign newspapers and journals I worked for and how much I was paid. He claimed it must be around $100,000. He could tell, he said, by my well-pressed pants. And my suspenders indicated a connection with America. Good Iranians do not wear suspenders.”

To gain his release, Mr. Hedayat had to sign a statement without being allowed to read it and was made to post a $10,000 bond. He faces trial on the same murky charges for which he was arrested.

Exactly who was it that arrested him? It's not clear. Various security forces seem to be operating on their own without answering to any apparent authority. One of them issued a parting threat to Mr. Hedayat: "If you continue to report, I'll kill you."

Neither he nor other journalists can expect much help from higher authorities. Addressing a recent conference of non-governmental organizations, President Khatami admitted his reforms are stalled by the opposition clerics. The Guardian Council, for example, has killed a bill that would ban torture in the judicial system.

In this crackdown on journalists, other factors add to the repression, which is greater in Tabriz in northern Iran because of its proximity to Azerbaijan.

Brenda Shaffer is director of Caspian Studies at Harvard University and author of Borders and Brethren: Iran and the Challenge of Azerbaijani Identity. She says Tehran worries that its Azerbaijani citizens will be unduly influenced by their fellow ethnics across the border: “Despite the fact that the Azerbaijanis are also Shiite Muslims, Iran has an extremely poor relationship with Azerbaijan. It even supports Armenia in the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Iran fears a strong and attractive Azerbaijan could be a source of attraction to its own Azerbaijanis. So it actually tries to keep Azerbaijan embroiled in conflict with its neighbors. Iran tries to delay the energy projects that Azerbaijan is involved in.”

Professor Shaffer notes the recent demonstrations against the regime were larger and rougher in Tabriz and other parts of Iran than in Tehran. There were also more clashes with the police and more arrests: “The ethnic minorities, especially the Azerbaijanis, have sort of double grievances toward the regime. Just like everyone else, they are suffering from the political limitations, from the economic situation, from the international constraints. But the members of minorities also have the second constraint of not have language rights. An Azerbaijani person in Tabriz cannot educate children in their own language.”

Ms. Shaffer hastens to add there is no significant separatist movement among Azerbaijanis in Iran who conduct trade and cultural exchanges across the border without any political implications: “Although maybe inspired by some of the things happening in the republic of Azerbaijan in terms of free cultural expression, very few of them want to join the republic of Azerbaijan but rather to improve the amount of rights they have within Iran but not in any way to change the political borders.”

This does not satisfy Tehran, says Brenda Shaffer. It continues a harsh campaign against any sign of Azerbaijani separatism. But authorities move cautiously, avoiding mass round-ups: “They really go for the leadership. They behead these movements. You can still let off steam. You can still go out and demonstrate. It's the leaders who are being assassinated and imprisoned.”

Reporters Without Borders, a group that defends journalists worldwide, says 24 Iranian reporters are currently in prison and prevented from seeing anyone. The organization says not a week goes by without Iranian reporters coming under some kind of pressure: "Any of them can be arrested at any moment under any pretext. How can they work under such conditions?"

The World Association of Newspapers, representing 18,000 publications in 100 countries, asked Iran to release seven journalists recently convicted in a closed-door session of the Tehran Revolutionary Court. "We respectfully remind you," said the organization, "that the jailing of journalists on these charges constitutes a clear breach of the right to freedom of expression which is guaranteed by numerous international conventions. This kind of detention is one of the most reprehensible ways to enjoin silence and as a consequence, a grave violation of human rights."

Morteza Negahi, an Iranian journalist now in the United States, says many Iranian reporters have been silenced. They have been forced to quit their jobs or to flee the country. But others continue to work despite the danger: “We say, 'We are free to write, and they are free to arrest us.' But still compared to many years ago, there is more freedom, and people are telling their stories anyhow. They are not afraid. Like Mr. Hedayat, people talk more and more about their experience in prison, about everything.”

Iranians say they are not the only ones making trouble for journalists and cite the case of their own reporters in Iraq. In July, two Iranians claiming to be journalists were arrested by U.S. forces for suspicious activities and held in a detention camp outside Baghdad.

Even-handedly, Reporters Without Borders says U.S-British forces must provide convincing evidence that the two journalists violated security or else release them.

U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has criticized some media for putting out false or slanted reports that may inflame Iraqis against U.S. troops. In turn, Reporters Without Borders deplores the growing tension between U.S. authorities and journalists in Iraq. But there is no charge of torture.