Freedom of speech I: Iran's lonely crowd waits for deliverance

Posted in Iran | 29-Nov-04 | Author: Farouz Farzami| Source: International Herald Tribune

Iranians chant slogans as they surround a burning British, U.S., and Israel flags in front of the British Embassy in Tehran.
TEHRAN When Friday prayers here finish at about 2 in the afternoon, hundreds of worshipers parade toward waiting buses east of Tehran University, shouting canned rhetoric against America and Israel, defining themselves by their animosity toward others.

Watching this ritual, one cannot help but ask: "How can such a small minority of vocal people - totally orchestrated worshipers and their security guards - set the agenda for a nation of 70 million people?"

The short answer is lack of free speech - or, more accurately, the absence of freedom after speech. The state has a monopoly on public discourse, and intellectuals, whether they are religious, atheist or agnostic, are simply not heard. The mullahs in Qom, the holy city two hours drive southwest of Tehran, can dial the phone number of any revolutionary judge in Iran and order the persecution of anyone who dares to question the authorities and their divine agenda.

Learning is thus made irrelevant. The educated must rely on the government to earn their living. I have dozens of friends who hate the religious regime but, to earn a subsistence salary, work as translators of confidential bulletins that keep the ruling theocracy abreast of what the "unfriendly" foreign news media think about Iran.

"It is like preparing your own cross for your own crucifixion," said one friend who works for Iranian Radio & TV, which is controlled by the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

His remark reminds me of when I worked in a wood-pulp mill in western Iran during the early years of the Islamic revolution. In the first decade after 1979, many intellectuals, anticipating being arrested, cleared their bookshelves and left their "illegal" volumes on street corners. Piles of these books found their way to the mill, where we reduced them to pulp. One day, throwing books into the mill, I grasped a Farsi version of Marx's "Capital." Immediately, I knew it was my own copy; I recognized the book by its feel, it was so familiar to my touch.

Today's intellectuals, if they haven't turned to smoking opium or drinking homemade liquor, devote themselves to literature, primarily Farsi, European, Russian and South American. The few who remain politically active, mostly defeated reformists, take refuge in religion and fast for a day, half-seriously dubbing it a "hunger strike" or "political fasting."

There have been a few notable exceptions. Last summer, hundreds of staff writers from a banned daily newspaper, Vaghayeh Etefaghieh, protested in public, with their hands tied together as a symbol of state repression. The act drew the attention of international photojournalists, and the protest picked up steam. Soon, Iran's Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi, flanked by her co-workers from the Human Rights Defendant Center, appeared at the small auditorium of the Iranian Journalists Association to throw their weight behind the protest.

Such moments, however, are rare. Since April 2000, 110 dailies and periodicals have been closed by the authorities. Although the reform-minded Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance still gives moral and financial support to the managers and license-holders of the press, most independent reporters - including myself - are now barred from writing.

The chairman of the Iranian Press Managers Board, Issa Saharkhiz, has urged journalists to protest more actively, saying: "Enough is enough. What are you waiting for? What worse can happen to you?"

He criticized reporters who practice self-censorship, trading away their freedom of expression in hopes that their publications will survive the government crackdown. He called for journalists to end the "vicious circle of getting permission to publish and after a while being closed down."

Saharkhiz also says that jailed journalists are forced to write detailed information about their colleagues' private lives, which can be used against them whenever the judiciary branch chooses. When jailed journalists are bailed out or released, their interrogators debrief them regularly, coercing them into becoming spies for the regime.

Such is the lot not just of journalists but also of writers, artists, scholars and millions of frustrated youths in Iran. Until a real political leadership rises from the ashes of the revolution, we may have to be content with it.

(Farouz Farzami is an Iranian journalist.)