The Risks, Rewards And Mysteries Of Reporting From Iran | KERA News

The Risks, Rewards And Mysteries Of Reporting From Iran

Dec 11, 2014
Originally published on December 11, 2014 12:53 pm

Nazila Fathi covered turbulent events in her native Iran for years as The New York Times correspondent. She learned to navigate the complicated system that tolerates reporting on many topics but can also toss reporters in jail if they step across a line never explicitly defined by the country's Islamic authorities.

Fathi recalls one editor telling her what journalists could do in Iran: "We have the freedom to say whatever we want to say, but we don't know what happens afterwards."

Five years ago, Fathi was covering the aftermath of Iran's hotly contested 2009 presidential election, when demonstrators flooded the streets to protest a vote they said was rigged in favor of the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The government warned journalists to stop covering the street demonstrations, which often turned violent, but Fathi continued to file stories for the Times.

Then one day, a government source told her that the authorities had given her photo to snipers who were believed to be shooting the protesters. Soon after, intelligence officials appeared on the street outside her apartment.

Fearing arrest, she remained in her apartment until she and her husband, along with their two small children, left for the Tehran airport in the middle of the night and took a flight out of the country.

Fathi has not gone back to Iran and now lives in suburban Washington, D.C. She's written about the challenges of reporting in Iran in a new book, The Lonely War: One Woman's Account Of The Struggle For Modern Iran.

Speaking with NPR's Steve Inskeep, Fathi says she believes that some journalists are arrested not for their reporting, but to serve as a pawn in a complex power struggle. It could involve Iran and a foreign country or it could be an internal feud between two Iranian government agencies, she says.

Here are the highlights of the interview:

Was the government monitoring you because you were a journalist?

Yes, from the beginning. There was a guy, who I call Mr. X in the book, he became my handler. He was the handler of all foreign reporters. Some of my [journalist] friends had very bad experiences with him. I can't say I got along with him, but I found a way to deal with him in a way that he was never mean to me, and I think toward the end, he was even quite respectful.

Where did you meet with Mr. X?

At different places. The first time it was at one of the Intelligence Ministry headquarters. Then he started inviting me to meet him at hotel rooms, which was extremely creepy in the beginning. I was terrified.

[Later, Mr. X invited her to an apartment.] When I went there, I searched the entire house and I went into the kitchen and I took a knife and I hid it in my pocket. I was so embarrassed when I walked in because I kept thinking, "How was I going to use that knife."

I wrote under very tight deadlines, so I just didn't have time to think about him. But when he called and summoned me, he always came with a big file. So there were always questions about the stories I had written.

"Why did you draw this conclusion? Why did you write this?" But the good thing about Mr. X, or at least the way he treated me, was he listened.

Why did you think you had to leave Iran?

It was about 2 1/2 weeks after the [presidential] election in 2009. All reporters received a letter that said the ones who worked out of an office were not allowed to leave their offices. I worked out of home, so I ignored the ban, I kept going out, and of course I was writing my stories under my byline, and I think that embarrassed the regime.

One day I got a call from a [militia] commander. ... He said that he had heard they had given my photo to snipers to shoot me if they saw me. I continued covering the story and I sort of ignored what he had said.

But then I was on my way to see a [political] analyst and I noticed there were people right outside my apartment building sitting in a car and as soon as they saw me, I noticed another car behind me and two motorcycles. I went back home and I never left my apartment building until the night that we left the country.

After I left the country, I found out that the Intelligence Ministry and people in the judiciary were quite divided over whether they should arrest me or not. So it had taken them a while to issue an arrest warrant for me.

You've said there's a lot of free expression in Iran but that there are things you can't write about. What's going on there?

I've always wondered, how come this regime, after 35 years — despite all its efforts, all the money it has spent, all the repressive measures that it has taken — how come it hasn't been able to raise the ideological generation that it desired.

I don't know. That's my question too. Iran has changed in very important ways, and the [1979] revolution has been responsible for it. It was the revolution that drew people who lived on the margins of society, people who were in the rural areas, into the center, because they were the regime's support base. It rewarded them by giving them jobs, by giving them good salaries, and they moved up in society. And they are exactly the same people who are calling for change and reform now.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have a glimpse now into some of the complexities of free expression in Iran. It's a country with controls on speech, yet people keep making movies, publishing newspapers and speaking out.

Iranian Nazila Fathi spent years navigating that world as a journalist.

NAZILA FATHI: I remember one editor told me one thing - that we have the freedom to say whatever we want to say, but we don't know what happens afterwards.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Didn't someone express that a different way? They said Iran has freedom of speech, but not freedom after speech.

FATHI: Yeah.

INSKEEP: So there are limits that people must have in their heads when they decide what to write. You must have to make a decision - I'm going to go for it this time or I'm not going to go for it this time.

FATHI: Yeah, I think we know it. When I was in Iran there were some topics that I never touched.

INSKEEP: Fathi is the author of a new book called "The Lonely War." She wrote for The New York Times and other publications until she left the country in 2009. She struggles now to define the boundary lines of expression. She considered a religious minority called Baha'is to be off-limits, yet people did sometimes get away with open criticism of the government.

FATHI: I've even heard people cursing the supreme leader who is like, the person that is considered untouchable, nobody should criticize him. But people have cursed him in public during demonstrations.

INSKEEP: Nothing happened to them?

FATHI: No, nothing happened to them. I mean, since '99 I remember protesters shouting death to dictator, Khamenei is a dictator.

INSKEEP: The public debate in Iran matters a lot to the United States. Iran is deeply involved in vital places like Iraq and Syria and Lebanon, and also involved in nuclear negotiations with the U.S. Iranians manage to express themselves, though at some risk. Independent newspapers are allowed, and then shut down, and then opened again. Journalists like Jason Rezaian of The Washington Post may be arrested, though it's often unclear why. Nazila Fathi worked for years without being arrested, though she was required to report to an intelligence agent.

FATHI: There was a guy - who I call Mr. X in the book - became my handler. He was the handler of all of us, all foreign reporters. Some of my friends had very bad experiences with him, but, I can't say I got along with him, but I found a way to deal with him in a way that - he was never mean to me and I think towards the end, he was even quite respectful.

INSKEEP: Where did you meet with Mr. X?

FATHI: At different places. The first time, it was at one of the intelligence ministries' headquarters. And then he started inviting me to meet him at hotel rooms, which was extremely creepy in the beginning.

INSKEEP: You must have been a little fearful on your way to those meetings?

FATHI: I was terrified. When I went there, I searched the entire house and I went into the kitchen and I took a knife and I hid it in my pocket. And I was so embarrassed when they walked in because I kept on thinking, how was I going to use that knife? I think it just showed how scared I was, and of course in the end, I just walked home with that knife in my pocket and I took it home with me.

INSKEEP: Did you think a lot about Mr. X when you were writing?

FATHI: No, never. I wrote under very tight deadlines so I just didn't have time to think about him. But when he called and he summoned me, he always came with a big file. So there were always questions - why did you draw this conclusion, why did you write this?

But the good thing about Mr. X, or at least the way he treated me, was that he listened. I had heard from other friends that he had like, asked them to come up with other kinds of analyses. He never asked me those things.

INSKEEP: So what happened that made you begin to think you needed to leave Iran?

FATHI: It was about two and half weeks after the elections.

INSKEEP: In 2009.

FATHI: In 2009.

INSKEEP: This was the disputed election that led to great protests, OK.

FATHI: Exactly. All reporters had received a letter. The letters we received said that the ones who work out of an office were not allowed to leave their offices. I worked out of home so I ignored the ban. I kept going out and of course, I was writing my stories under my byline and I think that embarrassed the regime. One day I got a call from a Basiji commander - Basij was the militia force that was responsible for cracking down protesters - he said that he had heard they had given my photo to snipers to shoot me if they saw me. I ignored what he had said. I didn't believe him. I thought he was trying to intimidate me. But then I was on my way to see one of the last analysts who was not arrested, and I noticed that there were people right outside my apartment building sitting in a car. And as soon as they saw me, I noticed another car behind me and two motorcycles. I went back home and I never left my apartment building until the night that we left the country. And then after I left the country I found out that the intelligence ministry and people in the judiciary were quite divided over whether they should arrest me or not. So it had taken them a while to issue an arrest warrant for me.

INSKEEP: Help me understand one more thing. People listening to you will have heard you say that you can't write about everything, that when you expressed yourself politically, you were in danger of being imprisoned at some point, that you yourself had to leave the country after being surveilled in this very scary way. And yet, you have also argued rather passionately that there is a lot of free expression in Iran. What's going on there?

FATHI: I don't know. That's the $1 million question. I mean, I've always wondered how come this regime, after 35 years, despite all of its efforts, all of the money that it has spent, all of the repressive measures that it has taken, how come it hasn't been able to raise the ideological generation that it desired? I don't know. That's my question, too. I mean, Iran has changed in very important ways and the Revolution has been responsible for it. It was the Revolution that drew people who lived in the margins of society, people who were in the rural areas into its center because they were the regime's support base. It rewarded them by giving them jobs and they moved up in society. And they are exactly the same people who are calling for change and reform now.

INSKEEP: Nazila Fathi is the author of "The Lonely War."

Thanks for coming by.

FATHI: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.