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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
Time Magazine
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 past mistakes.

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.


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