"We told you - no more scoops"
Geneive Abdo, the Guardian's correspondent in Iran, was forced to
leave at the weekend under threat of prosecution. She explains the country's
problem with freedom of expression, and recounts her own experience
February 5, 2001
It was an interview with a journalist imprisoned for speaking his mind
that precipitated my departure. Akbar Ganji sees himself as Iran's leading
practitioner of free expression, and is accordingly forthright.
But when the Guardian published my interview with him 10 days ago,
his allies in and around the government of President Mohammad Khatami apparently
decided that western-style press freedom was a step too far.
In the interview Ganji warned of a possible social explosion in Iran
in reaction to the theological "fascism" being exercised there,
a reference to the conservative clerical establishment's tenets.
A small volatile figure, Ganji was confirmed as a reformist hero when
a hardline court sentenced him last month to 10 years for dissent. After
the interview he could not be discredited, so I had to be.
First, his friends and family accused me of deliberately distorting
his views, though they had approved for publication the translation of
the statements he had written in response to questions smuggled to him
in Evin prison in Tehran.
They also threatened legal action under the harsh press laws already
used to such effect against pro-reform journalists like Ganji and his three
Next, I was told by the director general for foreign press in the ministry
of culture and Islamic guidance in Tehran - the most influential institution
still run by the reformers - that it was illegal to interview a political
prisoner. If this is a crime in Iranian law, no one has been able to identify
it to me on the statute books.
My husband, Jonathan Lyons, the Reuters bureau chief in Tehran, had
taken part in the interview process with me. His agency was informed by
letter that the matter was under investigation and that Reuters should
prepare itself for the consequences.
Doubtful that we could rely on any official protection against being
prosecuted by the authorities as criminals, we took the official warnings
seriously. After all, one international press watchdog said recently that
Iran had become the world's biggest prison for journalists. And just a
few days ago 18 operatives from the intelligence ministry had been convicted
of the murder of secular dissidents.
Telling almost no one and fearful of arrest at the airport's three
guardposts, we slipped out of Tehran on the first available flight before
dawn on Friday.
Yesterday Reuters said: "We reject the allegations against Reuters
and against Jonathan." The agency's report on Ganji's views, which
ran on January 22 under the headline "Iranian reformer warns of political
explosion", was "a fair representation of Ganji's remarks",
Meanwhile I realised, the morning after we arrived in London, just
how close our close call had been. I was harshly condemned in the official
Iran Daily, the newspaper of the state news agency Irna. The paper is run
by allies of President Khatami.
"Expulsion in this case is not an option," it stated. "The
lady has breached Iranian law in publishing fabrications and distortions.
She is not a diplomat and does not enjoy immunity from prosecution."
The strongly implied threat of jail for an accredited foreign correspondent
sounded more like the rhetoric of the conservative press than that of an
organ of a reformist government whose movement purports to be built on
a platform of free expression and overseen by a philosopher-president.
More than any single event during my years in Iran, this experience
brought home to me the autocratic tendencies of a reform movement that
claims a democratic mantle - and how serious are the obstacles to political
development in a country with a centuries-old history of authoritarian
rule and limited experience of democracy's give-and-take.
"I am so sorry this has happened to you," said an Iranian
intermediary in the affair. "This shows that once in power the reformers
would behave just like the conservatives."
Western critics of the Islamic republic established in Iran 20 years
ago argue that Islam is incompatible with democracy, a view I reject. But
having tested the theory as a correspondent in Iran since 1998, my conclusion
is that the sceptics are partly correct.
Too often the reformers have proved to be more interested in preserving
the revolutionary political system and their own limited power than in
implementing their stated goals of religious and political diversity, of
social justice and freedom of expression - the elements, in short, of a
healthy civil society. Dissenting voices threatened their status quo.
Mr Khatami's landslide election nearly four years ago gave many Iranians
promise and hope.
To them he had swiftly become the smiling mullah who would shape an
Islamic democracy. The expectations raised by western governments and Iranians
knew few limits. He would oversee the rule of law and social justice. He
would end repression against political dissenters. He would back the budding
In turn, the argument went, his policies would make it easier for western
governments to engage in a full detente with Iran, ending 20 years of hostility.
But, proving ineffectual at governing, he has ended up preserving more
elements of the system than many a conservative might have been able to
Several crusaders for reform who were once his staunch supporters are
now in prison under harsh sentences made public in January by a revolutionary
court. At least 30 progressive newspapers and journals have been shut.
Student demonstrators for democracy are serving long prison sentences,
removing them from the political scene.
Newly elected MPs who say they are aligned with Mr Khatami are repeatedly
overruled on key legislation, either by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei, or the conservative body of clerics and jurists empowered by
the constitution to decide if bills conform with Islamic law.
My Guardian reports on these developments in the past eight months
- and several interviews I did with prominent conservatives - set in motion
a campaign against me by the reformers, unhappy at critical western press
portrayals of their movement.
This picked up pace as President Khatami's political fortunes declined,
to the point that he admitted that he lacked the political powers to do
his job in the way he had hoped.
Soon after returning from holidays in early January, I had a phonecall
from a senior Iranian official who monitors the foreign press, angry at
one of my stories.
"We told you, no more scoops," he said. Within a month I