In a recent article by Global Journalist, author Sarah Rappaport, quotes RFE’s Senior Correspondent on Iran, Golnaz Esfandiari. The author credits Iranian journalists working from abroad with offering the world a glimpse into the political and social challenges facing contemporary Iran.
Reporting From Outside
Sarah Rappaport | Global Journalist
March 10, 2011
On Feb. 14, tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets of Tehran. They marched in solidarity with Egyptians who had successfully forced Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down a few days earlier.
Golnaz Esfandiari, who was born and raised in Iran, covered the protests from Washington, D.C.
“It’s just so painful not to be there and to share their pain,” said Esfandiari, a senior correspondent for Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty. “All I can do is raise their voice from outside the country.”
Esfandiari reported on the protests by relying on eye-witness accounts from on-the-ground sources. It’s not an ideal way to report, but Esfandiari sees it as her best option.
Iran jails more reporters than any other nation, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In 2010, the state jailed 52 journalists. The government can easily arrest journalists or not re-new their visas.
Because of the repression and the crackdown, which exists in the forms of state censorship and self-censorship, it’s challenging for Iran-based journalists to report on the situation there. Many journalists blog anonymously for fear that they might be arrested. Esfandiari thinks reporters can work more effectively from outside the country.
She has contacts within Iran—some in the government—whom she often relies on for information. She also reports using the material of citizen journalists. For example, RFE-RL received more than 30 videos from citizen journalists from the Feb. 14 protests.
However, government officials often refuse to give interviews to Esfandiari, calling Radio Free Europe “CIA radio,” so she said that it is often difficult to get two sides of a story. She tries her best to balance her reporting using statements and comments from other sources, but she said it is a challenge.
Because she reports from outside the country, Esfandiari has had to get creative in order to find sources.
“We have an SMS system where people can text us,” she said. “We can ask them a question, and they can answer back in a text. For example, ‘what do they think about the nuclear issue?’ And then some of those people in the long term can become your sources. You can use them for other stories.” She is also active on social media sites like Twitter, which is another way to communicate from outside the country.
Blogs also offer Esfandiari important insight. “If you listen to Iranian leaders you would think the nuclear issue is the most important issue, Esfandiari said. But by following bloggers and social media she has learned that many people care more about access to high-speed Internet.
Despite using SMS and new media, such as Twitter, building trust is the best way to find new sources, she said. When people trust her, they are more willing to refer her to friends or family members as sources to use for a story.
Esfandiari said: “We have families of political prisoners who call me from inside the country and say, my son is in jail. He’s not well. I’d like to talk to you about this. I’d like other people to know what’s happening.”
Letting the outside world know about what’s happening in Iran—such as the jailings of political prisoners—is an important aspect of what Esfandiari does.
She said that her work is about giving a platform to people who don’t have one inside the country. “We are helping those people, giving them a voice and letting other people know what’s happening to political prisoners, activists,” Esfandiari explained.
She said that she’s been interviewing some of the same people for years, and many of them are currently behind bars or released on such large bail that it is like they are still imprisoned.
Esfandiari’s interview with the wife of Iran’s most prominent investigative journalist, Akbar Gangi, was published in six languages. At the time of the interview, Gangi was imprisoned and had launched a hunger strike that lasted 40 days. His wife, Massoumeh Shafiee, put herself in the spotlight by giving interviews and speaking on his behalf.
“What’s amazing for me is you have all these people in prison, and sometimes you get the impression that the real heroes are the women outside the prison, and they refuse to remain silenced,” Esfandiari said.
In her own work, Esfandiari said she has experienced discrimination because of her gender. Instead of taking her seriously, some sources ignore her or flirt with her.
“I did interviews with a colleague from our Afghan service who was a man, and the entire time the person who I wanted to interview would just talk to him, like I wasn’t even in the room,” Esfandiari said. “I would ask questions and he wouldn’t even look at me.”
The next day, Esfandiari showed up without her male colleague to interview the same man. Instead of answering herquestions seriously, he flirted with her.
Even in Prague, as chief editor of Radio Free Europe’s Persian Service, Esfandiari said she thought some people were uncomfortable having a woman as their boss.
“That was a cause of tension,” Esfandiari said. “It wasn’t only the men. I felt like some of the women were more comfortable being led by a man.”
This doesn’t keep Esfandiari from doing her job. As it says on her blog “Persian Letters” at rferl.org, she wants to offer a window into Iranian politics and society.
-Additional reporting by Rebecca Wolfson