Letter From Tehran
"Playing with Death"
How Akbar Ganji's fiery and courageous journalism helped
change Iran's politics
By Scott MacLeod
With reporting by Azadeh Moaveni/Tehran
March 6, 2000
With music still frowned upon,the Islamic Republic of Iran has no true
pop stars. But Akbar Ganji is mobbed like one nearly everywhere he goes
these days. When Iran's No. 1 muckraking journalist attended a lecture
at Tehran University last month, students whistled and chanted his name
until he went onstage and gave a speech. At an election rally featuring
the country's most popular reform politicians, it was Ganji who brought
down the house. "Ganji! Ganji!" the crowd roared when he arrived.
Once a functionary in the Revolutionary Guards and Ministry of Islamic
Culture and Guidance, Ganji, 40, is now calling Iran's Islamic authorities
to account in a way no other Iranian journalist has ever dared. His barbs
helped take down one of the regime's sturdiest figures, Ali Akbar Hashemi
Rafsanjani, in last month's parliamentary elections.
Ganji's writings have his friends worried for his life. He receives
regular threats. "I guess I'm a troublemaker," Ganji laughs in
a TIME interview. Suddenly turning somber, he adds, "I call it playing
with death. One day something might happen to me. This fight for reform
is lawful, but it has its price." In addition to the outpouring of
public support, Ganji is encouraged by the steady flow of leaks he receives
about death squads: he declines to identify his sources but likens them
to the insiders who fed Woodward and Bernstein.
The journalist's scoops began appearing early last year with articles
tying Iran's Intelligence Ministry to the murders of dozens of intellectuals,
organized-crime figures and people killed because they knew too much about
government dirty dealings. In what Ganji calls "disclosure by drips,"
he published one article after another explaining how shadowy operatives
selected their victims and executed them. Ganji avoids accusing specific
officials of ordering the murders, tantalizing readers by pinning the blame
on "Mr. Master Key" and the "gray eminences"--widely
seen in Tehran as references to former Intelligence Minister Ali Fallahian
and other Iranian leaders.
Ganji gleefully cast such literary devices aside, however, when former
President Rafsanjani joined the race for parliament earlier this year.
Intent on bringing the powerful Rafsanjani "down to earth," he
embarked on a searing interrogation in his newspaper columns, demanding
that the candidate explain what he knew about the killings as well as why
the eight-year war with Iraq, which killed more than 300,000 Iranians,
was "unnecessarily" prolonged. Rafsanjani suffered a humiliation
at the polls: in last week's results, he ran 30th in the race for 30 Tehran
seats, jeopardizing his bid to become the next speaker in Iran's parliament.
"In the history of Iranian journalism, there is hardly a precedent
for Ganji's bravery," says Ahmed Bourghani, a former Ministry of Islamic
Culture and Guidance official. "He has pulled back the curtain."
For their part, Fallahian and Rafsanjani have denounced Ganji's writings
as lies. Even some of Iran's liberals, fearing a hard-line backlash against
the reform camp, believe he goes too far. "We need to make sure that
our approach is measured," says Morteza Mardihah, a columnist for
the Tehran daily Asr-e-Azadegan. "With Ganji, it is like passing a
car accident. Sometimes reality is too harsh--and unnecessary to look at."
To the delight of most reformers, however, Ganji--an unabashed partisan
of President Mohammed Khatami's, an avid reader of Western philosophy and
the son of a gas-station attendant--refuses to avert his eyes. A street
activist during Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini's revolution, he now insists
that building Iran's democracy entails acknowledging the Islamic regime's
Whether Ganji will be able to continue his campaign is a crucial test
for Iran's reformers as they maneuver against the hard-line conservatives
who maintain control over the security forces and judicial system. If Ganji
manages to remain alive, few in Iran will be surprised if he runs afoul
of the Islamic courts. His first scuffle with the system a few years back
landed him in prison for three months. His offense was giving a speech
that religious authorities said branded Iran's Islamic system as a form
of fascism. As Ganji admits, that's not music to an ayatullah's ears.