Meeting Azar Nafisi: Discussion on the state of Journalism in Iran

“There is freedom of speech in Iran, but we don’t have freedom after speech.” –Nikahang Kowsar.

The cartoon that sent Kowsar to jail

Writer Azar Nafisi, Middle East blogger Mona Eltahawy, Iranian cartoonist Nikahang Kowsar, and Washington director of Reporters Without Borders Clothilde Le Coz held a discussion on bloggers and the state of journalism in Iran this past Monday at SAIS. They touched on a number of topics, including journalists living in exile, Muslim youth bloggers, objectivity in Iran and the fight for basic rights in the country.

Nafisi didn’t focus too much on netizens or journalism, but rather on how to approach Iran as westerners. Instead of passing off the internal problems that Iran faces, like human rights violations and lack of free press, as part of the “Muslim culture,” we should look at rights more universally.

“If you’re a journalist, cartoonist, writer, a human being with principles, you have to look for the truth. And once you know the truth, truth is a call to action,” she said. “That is why truth is dangerous.”

In terms of the regime’s current restrictions on human rights, she said, “This is not what people want. Democracy and human rights are not Western. The point is that this struggle is not just political—it’s existential.” She said she didn’t stand up in Iran for politics, but as a woman, writer and teacher.

“It was freedom of choice. It was the fact that once they turned me into what they wanted me to be, I wasn’t myself. And so I was for all practical purposes, dead.”

The discussion began with a video of an Iranian photographer, Eshan Maleki , who is in exile in France staying in a safe house for reporters through Reporters Without Borders. He had to flee the country because some of his colleagues were being arrested.  He said in the video that he is sad seeing news come from Iran because he can’t be there to take the pictures coming out.

Clothilde said she knows of more than 100 reporters who have fled Iran for their lives. Currently there are 38 journalists and netizens in jail because of what they said.  New technologies play a great role in maintaining journalism in Iran, but people are deleting their Facebook profiles out of fear. She said she heard the word “Green” and its color will be banned and monitored on the Internet/cell phones.

Nikahang discussed the state of journalism in the country by describing it as one inherently bias, both against and in support of the government.  He had to leave Iran 7 years ago and sought refuge in Canada where he blogs and produces cartoons. He describes his fellow journalist expats as “accidental immigrants.” He detailed the trauma his colleagues are facing from their time in prison, including “daymares,” headaches, insomnia and paranoia. Many live in camps and hostels in Europe and Turkey.

“I’ve been in trouble, after the election. If you say something that the government dislikes, instead of a microphone you might face a gun,” he said.

CBS produced a documentary about him titled “Blogger’s war” after he was arrested after publishing a controversial cartoon called “Professor Crocodile,” which satirized a prominent Islamic cleric. Thousands of clerics and theological students led three days of protest in the holy city of Qom, demanding Kowsar’s execution.

Although what Iranian reporters do is often courageous, he said standard values and principles are sacrificed. Most are either with or against the government and newspapers act as a mouthpiece for political parties. “Iranian political reporters and columnists are working for one party against another…Iranian journalism is not independent from power.”

“I’m not here to attack Iranian journalists. They are victims of a system,” he said.

Mona focused on citizen journalists, but most of her talk dealt with Egypt and the Muslim world rather than Iranians. She described the youth moment in Egypt gearing against Mubarak in the upcoming election that focuses on social networking and blogging.

“With the Internet…those dangers can be interpreted in two days. They can be interpreted as saying young people should be careful when they go online because they can be arrested and tortured…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.”


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