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A Guerrilla Newsman In Exile

Journalists from Rouzegar, a reformist Tehran daily, sat in their editorial offices in September after receiving word of a two-month ban on their reporting.
Journalists from Rouzegar, a reformist Tehran daily, sat in their editorial offices in September after receiving word of a two-month ban on their reporting.
For almost two decades, RFE/RL’s Reza Veisi -- a well known journalist in Iran -- lived under the strain of severe psychological pressure as well as direct intimidation from government authorities before joining RFE/RL’s Persian-language service, Radio Farda, in early 2010.

For Veisi, Iranian censorship wasn’t an academic issue. It was a daily struggle that marked his life as a journalist and editor, as one after another of the newspapers for which he worked was shut down. Long before the contested 2009 presidential elections in Iran, when the government cracked down on civil society figures, especially journalists, the regime had a practiced way of dealing with troublesome reporters.

It was all so routine for Veisi that, in an interview with “Off Mic,” he just briefly mentions his arrest in 1999, instead moving on to a subsequent confrontation with Iranian intelligence officials, in which representatives of the government made specific threats against Veisi’s private life, essentially impeding the rest of his journalistic career in Iran.

“For over ten years, from 1999-2009, I couldn’t explain to anyone why I couldn’t write any report and could only work as an editor. I kept this from everyone,” explains Veisi.

Twelve years later he is still afraid of revealing details about the threats leveled by the intelligence officials.

The shadow of the authorities convinced Veisi that he had to leave Iran. But doing so wasn’t easy. Veisi still feels uncomfortable discussing the particulars of the elaborate plan he devised to leave the country in 2010. While making his arrangements, he lived in constant fear that he or his family would be detained by Iranian intelligence.

“Until the moment your plane takes off, you are in this constant fear that the intelligence service will detain you from your airplane seat,” explains Veisi. In order to avoid facial recognition by the intelligence service computers at the airport in Tehran, he opted to make a far more difficult journey, crossing the border from Iran to Turkey by bus in the middle of the winter. Veisi only narrowly avoided arrest when a security official aware of his identity called him out among the bus passengers.

Working as a journalist-in-exile for Radio Farda, and reporting 24 hours a day to an audience thousands of kilometers away, is a different experience for Veisi. His colleagues referred to his previous work in Iran as “guerrilla journalism” due to the threats, constant fear of arrest, and an-almost daily rotation of work offices. They worked at times without desks or chairs, unloading their phones and computers and all other equipment on a truck.

He detailed his unusual professional experience in a new book, “Election Fallout: Iran’s Exiled Journalists On Their Struggle For Democratic Change,” which documents the experiences of 12 exiled Persian journalists, five of whom now work at Radio Farda.

In an excerpt from “Election Fallout,” Veisi discusses the police investigation that finally prompted him to contact Radio Farda and make plans to leave Iran:

“The Ministry’s of Intelligence’s agents also came to the building in which I lived several times and asked my neighbours about me. Many of my friends were in prison. Many members of our group of reformist newspaper editors, who would meet every Saturday, such as Mohammad Atrianfar, Behzad Nabavi, and Isa Saharkhiz, had been arrested and I knew I could have been taken into custody at any moment.”

The full electronic version of “Election Fallout” is available online here.

‘We Try Everyday To Believe In A New Iran’

The transition from life in Iran has not always been easy: the editor who used to call the shots at his “guerrilla” newspapers has had to start over at the beginning as a reporter. But Veisi points out that for the first time in 10 years, he has the opportunity to file daily reports from Radio Farda’s broadcasting headquarters in Prague: “In five years I couldn’t write or publish a single report in Iran, and now I have the freedom to report daily.”

“In Iran we didn’t have security, and one day I hope to go back,” Veisi says, echoing the hopes of many Iranian journalists living abroad. “But without respect for human rights and democracy, I will never be able to work as a journalist in Iran, so we try everyday to believe in a new Iran.”

-- Deana Kjuka