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"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

Geneive Abdo
The Guardian
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 cellmates.

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", Reuters added.

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 free press.

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 do.

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 was gone.


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