Following Paine's footsteps in the fight for democracy
By Farshid Bakhshi
July 17, 2001
Although it seems unlikely, the writings of the great American journalist
Thomas Paine has much in common with the work of a present day Iranian journalist.
Paine's "Common Sense," published in 1776, urged the American
colonies to fight for independence from England. Paine, in direct and commanding
language, tried to shape the opinions of the colonists and change the status
quo. He fiercely and passionately attacked the British monarchy and cautioned
the colonies not to succumb. "It [monarchy] was the most prosperous
invention the Devil ever set on foot for the promotion of idolatry,"
Paine's brisk and rhetorical style was powerful enough to change the
colonists' notion of independence and to persuade many of them to join the
fight for freedom. The U.S. Constitution adopted some of the suggestions
Paine made in "Common Sense."
Now, more than two centuries later, many Iranian journalists are following
Paine's footsteps in fighting for the establishment of a democratic regime
in Iran. In a political system full of contradictions -- where die-hard
conservative hard-liners and pro-democratic reformists jostle to expand
their control -- journalists are the greatest threat to the hard-liners.
Ali Akbar Ganji, author of several books about Iran's recent political
history, is Iran's leading investigative journalist. Late last year, following
his participation in a Berlin conference on reforms in Iran, Ganji was arrested
and charged with "undermining Iran's security." On Monday, a court
sentenced him to six years in prison for "collecting confidential information"
and "insulting the founder of the Islamic Republic" (Ayatollah
Paine and Ganji are uncompromisingly sincere writers who use a forceful,
direct and rhetorical language to instigate action. Because of the similarity
of their approach, one can say they have roots in the same journalistic
tradition. One can see elements of Romanticism in both writers. Their prose
encourages expression of opinions and connection with feelings, and it also
promotes the individual and the importance of humanity as an inseparable
part of society.
Paine and Ganji's writings are poignantly subjective because these writers
were on a crusade to change the political system. However, Paine's style
was more aphoristic than Ganji's. Unlike Paine, Ganji was able to use the
media to gain support for his cause.
Ganji's most provocative articles appeared following a chain of murders
of dissident authors and political activists in the Fall of 1998. His journalistic
scoops began appearing in early 1999 with articles linking Iran's Intelligence
Ministry to these murders of dozens of intellectuals, organized-crime figures
and people killed because they knew too much about government dirty dealings.
In what he called "disclosure by drips," Ganji published one
article after another explaining how shadowy operatives selected their victims
and executed them. The Iranian community nicknamed Ganji "The Maverick"
since nobody ever knew what he would write next or how far up the ranks
of government he would go to point an accusing finger.
In an interview from his prison cell, Ganji said, "I have no doubt.
Democracy and a civil society will be our future. Maybe we will still have
to fight for that for two or three more years. But in the end, there will
be no other way."
In the last paragraph of "Common Sense", Paine commented in
a way strikingly similar to Ganji's prediction of the future: "These
proceedings may at first seem strange and difficult, but like all other
steps which we have already passed over, will in a little time become familiar
Both Paine and Ganji castigated the government, which to them, was the
source of difficulties. Ganji wrote, "Happiness under a government's
absolute sovereignty is impossible. People are not the tools and toys of
the government bureaucracy. But because power by its nature tends to accumulate,
humankind is absorbed by the government's control." Ganji offers only
one solution to the conflict: "Liberation from this downfall is impossible
unless the government's authority decreases and society's power increases."
These sentences exemplify the non-aphoristic style of Ganji. In contrast,
one can see Paine's aphoristic style discussing a similar theme in the following
paragraph: "Society is produced by our wants, and government by our
wickedness; the former promotes our happiness Positively by uniting our
affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages
intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the
last a punisher."
Paine also writes, "Absolute governments have this advantage with
them, that they are simple; if the people suffer, they know the head from
which their suffering springs, know likewise the remedy."
Ganji analyzes absolutism in a similar way: "The three types of
governments are: totalitarianism, democracy and authoritarianism."
He argued that authoritarianism and totalitarianism are very close in their
definition, but authoritarianism embodies elements of civility. He referred
to Iran as being ruled by an authoritarian regime. "With lighting a
candle of truth, the media in such a system [authoritarian] sheds light
on the political spectrum and unravel the truth." He urged the media
to capitalize on the hunger of the Iranians for democracy to force the die-hard
conservatives to loosen their grip on Iran.
Paine divided the English political system into three components: monarchial
tyranny, aristocratic tyranny and "the persons of the commons."
When Paine used the term "the person of the commons," he referred
to the English parliament that had the power to scrutinize the king's actions.
He argued that the king had the authority to reject parliament's recommendations
and enforce his own rule. Ganji and his peers use the same analogy to rebuff
the Islamic Republic. They point their finger at the spiritual leader Ayatollah
Ali Khamenei, and accuse him of undermining the reform movement.
The reformists led by President Khatami dominate the Iranian parliament,
but the hard-liners led by Khamenei control the judiciary, the Islamic militants,
conventional army and the media. As spiritual leader, Khamenei has the final
say over the president and the parliament. In the recent presidential election,
Khatami was reelected in a landslide victory, grabbing 77 percent of the
votes. Even though the reformists enjoy popular support, the hard-liners
supervise the system.
In his book, "L'Eminence Rouge" (His Red-Robed Highness), Ganji
scoffed at Iran's hard-line religious establishment. "First, one faction
of the hard-liners will swallow one faction of its own. The hard-line aggressors
will continue to eliminate more factions of their camp until they lose their
public support. At last, they will be removed from the political arena."
Paine scoffed at the monarchy: "There is something exceedingly ridiculous
in the composition of Monarchy, the different parts, by unnaturally opposing
and destroying each other, prove the whole character to be absurd and useless."
Paine's "Common Sense" brought a rising revolutionary sentiment
into sharp focus by placing blame for the suffering of the colonies directly
on the reigning British monarchy. Paine, an English immigrant, adamantly
advocated independence from English rule. Ganji supported the Ayatollah
Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. But when he saw that Khomeini's
rule divorced Islam from basic human freedoms, he became disenchanted and
distanced himself from the conservatives.
Many Iranian reform journalists underwent the same conversion. They were
highly critical of the Shah's refusal to grant political freedoms and considered
the monarchy as the source of every evil. They supported the revolution
to oust the Shah. The main slogan used to describe Iran's 2,700-years of
monarchy was: "God, Shah and People." Iranian journalists prior
to the revolution accused the Shah of playing the role of God, an argument
that attracted many to religious doctrines which claimed that Islam was
the only way to get close to God.
Paine, too, often referred to God. He observed the monarchy as a system
that tends to accumulate power that Paine claimed belonged to God. "And
when a man seriously reflects on the idolatrous homage which is paid to
the persons of kings, he need not wonder that the Almighty, ever jealous
of his honour, should disapprove a form of government which so impiously
invades the prerogative of Heaven." Unlike the Islamic Republic's argument,
which claims a monopoly on God, Paine claimed that God encourages pluralism.
"For myself, I fully and conscientiously believe, that it is the will
of the Almighty that there should be a diversity of religious opinions among
Paine elaborated on the political system to be formed in America. "Let
the assemblies be annual, with a President only. |Let each colony be divided
into six, eight, or ten, convenient districts, each district to send a proper
number of delegates to Congress, so that each colony send at least thirty."
Like Paine, who outlined the principles of a republic, a democratic regime
to be established after independence, Ganji argues that people should be
the ultimate arbitrator of the government. "Iranians wonder
why, at the start of 21st century, people are incarcerated because of their
opinions. Why the judiciary instead of accommodating the people serves a
political party," asked Ganji rhetorically. "Iran's honorable
and courageous people have the power to establish a real democracy by participating
in an election where they select their preferred parliament members."
(Even though Iranians today can vote, current members of parliament have
very little power.)
Ganji stresses the role of the free media in accelerating the reform
movement. "At the beginning, when the serial murders occurred, everyone
wanted to downplay the scandalous crime. But the media's adamancy and Khatami's
persistence bent the judiciary and forced the hard-liners to make confessions."
When the former president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani decided to join the race
for parliament in early 2000, Ganji, in a series of articles, demanded Rafsanjani
to explain what he knew about the killings, as well as his role in the "prolonged"
eight-year war with Iraq. The powerful ex-president suffered a humiliating
defeat in the elections.
Last February, when Ganji entered the Islamic courtroom after being brutally
beaten by wardens, he stared at the journalists seated in the press area
and screamed, "Write that they beat me up; write that I am not going
to give up; write that our nation deserves freedom." The judge reprimanded
him, but Ganji responded, "According to the Constitution this court
"Common Sense" became the catalyst for the ferment of Paine's
era. Likewise, Ganji's series of articles were a filter through which Iranians
expressed their contempt for the government. Ganji's robust and courageous
reporting has already reserved him an honorable place in the history of
Iran as a leading investigative journalist who solidly contributed to Iran's
reform movement in an eminently sensitive historical juncture.
"I guess I am a trouble maker," Ganji said last year in an
interview with Time. "I call it playing with death. One day
something may happen to me. This fight for reform is lawful, but it has
its price." Ganji is an excellent successor to carry on the political
journalistic tradition of Paine.