Over the past four years, the media has come to see Iran once again in black and white, and almost exclusively through the antics of its bombastic President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. To some degree, Ahmadinejad has invited the oversimplification of Iran with blunt verbal strikes at the West calculated to dominate headlines. But with an upcoming election that will define Iranians’ future in so many ways, the absence of nuance or understanding of how Iran really works and how Iranians really feel has never been more profound.
This loss of nuance can be seen in the recent case of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi, whose story has been told by the Western media as that of a reporter shut down while in pursuit of the truth. The real story is far more complicated.
Iran’s record of dealing with journalists is certainly stained the Committee to Protect Journalists has called the country’s Supreme Leader one of the world’s worst enemies of the press, and several journalists and bloggers have died while in state custody. But to work in Iran you must understand the system through which journalists gain access. This system is complicated and demands much from those it oversees, and anyone who has reported successfully there has been complicit with its entrenchment.
I’ve reported in Iran since 1999, and written two books that openly describe what I’ve faced along the way. The authorities assigned me a minder, whom I called Mr. X in my books, charged with monitoring my activities and occasionally bullying me into not working at all. Our relationship over the years has been excruciating at times, but I’ve tried to keep sight of what he represents a troubled government composed of both pragmatic and hard-line factions.
The latter believe that at heart all journalists are essentially spies, and the fact that they still allow so many foreign journalists to visit and operate out of Iran is no small step for a country that just 30 years ago was executing the Shah’s officials on rooftops. Iran is not a Western democracy. Its newsworthiness is precisely what makes it such a dangerous and complicated beat for reporters. In such an atmosphere, practicing anything but the utmost caution is naïve. Those who flout the system do so primarily at their own expense.
In the eyes of a state that has been convinced that the United States is plotting its overthrow , much of what journalists do resembles intelligence work. We talk to dissidents to scope out the extent of resistance to the government, we try to ferret out what the authorities are up to in sensitive places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and then sometimes we discuss what we’ve discovered with diplomats of nations hostile to Iran. That’s enough to strike fear in any Iranian hard-liner’s heart. That’s also why Mr. X spent hours with me, determining what I was actually up to. Though the process by which he came to his conclusion was often painful for me to endure, there was a process in place, and it helped him conclude I was not a threat.
I worked hard to avoid the dangerous ire and suspicion of officials like Mr. X. I never reported when I did not have a valid press credential. When your press credentials are revoked, or the more discreet version of that, not renewed, it means that either the state’s press officials or intelligence agents have deemed that your working is not acceptable to them at the time. This might be a political decision, a simple locking down during times when the regime feels vulnerable. It might also be personal. On my last trip, the authorities refused me permission to report the story I had proposed altogether. I was disappointed, of course, having flown to Tehran with my two-year-old in tow and promised an editor a story. But to work without credentials is inviting trouble, even if the authorities don’t step up and inform you that they disapprove. The rules of engagement are abundantly clear: they are not there to look after your welfare, they are there to safeguard the Islamic Revolution.
Israel also figures into the peculiar regulations Iranian journalists must contend with. The fine print of my Iranian passport clearly states that “the bearer of this passport is forbidden from traveling to occupied Palestine.” It has pained me not being able to visit such a historically rich and significant corner of the Middle East. But I know that a visit to Israel in any capacity would immediately cast me as suspect in Iran, so I have refrained from going. I value my access to this story more than my desire to be a tourist, though it’s a choice I wish I didn’t have to make.
Reporting on the powerful, whether in the world of finance, the White House, or the Islamic Republic of Iran, is always a fraught enterprise. There is nothing morally straightforward in how journalists pursue the news that appears in the world’s most prestigious publications even in the freest of countries. I have never reported in Washington, D.C., for example, but I know there is a complex power game involved in cultivating close access to the knowledgable and influential. Of course a journalist who flouts the rules in Washington will risk access rather than imprisonment, but that’s just one more benefit of living in a society with the luxury of nuance.
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