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Testimonials - Iranian Journalists Tell Their Story

Iran - Student bloggers sentenced to one year immediate and two years conditional arrest by Tabriz Revolutionary Court, 17Jan2009
Iran - Student bloggers sentenced to one year immediate and two years conditional arrest by Tabriz Revolutionary Court, 17Jan2009

“There is freedom of speech in Iran, but we don’t have freedom after speech,” said Nikahang Kowsar at a recent discussion in Washington on journalism in Iran.

Kowsar, a political cartoonist and blogger who left Iran for Canada seven years ago, detailed the trauma of colleagues who have recently been imprisoned in Iran, including “daymares,” headaches, insomnia and paranoia. Many live in camps and hostels in Europe and Turkey. Referring to his own experience he said, “I’ve been in trouble... If you say something that the government dislikes, instead of a microphone you might face a gun.”

Although Iranian reporters are courageous, Kowsar said they often must compromise professional values and principles. He said journalism is inherently biased, both for and against the government. “Iranian political reporters and columnists are working for one party against another…Iranian journalism is not independent from power.” He added, “I’m not here to attack Iranian journalists. They are victims of a system.”

The discussion was sponsored by Reporters without Borders (RSF) at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS). It began with a video of Iranian photographer, Eshan Maleki, who is in exile in France at one of several safe houses organized by RSF for journalists fleeing Iran. In the video he says he is sad seeing news come from Iran because he can’t be there to photograph it.

Veteran Iranian photojournalist Hasan Sarbakhshian, who fled Iran after the June 2009 elections, spoke about his work at another RSF event last month. “I’m capable of being a taxi driver or a shop worker, though being a photographer allows me to tell an important story,” he said. Describing conditions for journalists in Iran he told the audience, “We cannot talk about freedom of speech while the current regime is in power. In this terrifying situation... support for independent TV and radio is vital.”

Clothilde le Coz, RSF’s Washington director, told the SAIS audience that she knows of more than 100 reporters who have fled Iran for their lives and 38 journalists and netizens who are in prison. She said that new technologies have helped maintain journalism in Iran, but that people are deleting their Facebook profiles out of fear. She reported hearing rumors about plans to ban and monitor the word and color “green” from Internet and cell phones in Iran.

Mona Eltahawy, a Middle Eastern blogger who also participated in the SAIS program, spoke about efforts to control the Internet in Egypt in advance of forthcoming presidential elections. “But why are regimes cracking down on these young people and forcing them to flee? It’s because they recognized there is a danger in these young people going online, and when they go online, they challenge authority. They chip away at the chains of authority.”

Originally reported by Ladan Nekoomaram, RFE/RL, Washington, D.C.