Iranian journalists flee abroad

2009/11/22

Published on German TV channel NDR / media and politics November 22 2009 11:30 p.m.
Source (German): http://www3.ndr.de/sendungen/zapp/archiv/medien_politik/iran170.html
Video: http://www3.ndr.de/flash/zapp/interactivePlayer.html?xml=zappsendung156-interactiveBroadcasts.xml&sr=zapp&bid=iran168

Repression: Iranian journalists flee abroad
Intimidation, abduction, arrest – freedom of the press in Iran is and will remain mere wishful thinking. Since president Ahmadinejad manipulated the elections, the situation has become unbearable for journalists. For many of them, the internet is the last opportunity to report freely. However, they will now be deprived of this opportunity by the regime – with the help of a special unit for monitoring e-mails and websites. More than 100 bloggers and journalists are already imprisoned in Iran. Escape is their only way out.
Author: Stefan Buchen

She left everything behind. All she had on her when she arrived in Cologne some weeks ago was her backpack. Mitra Khalatbari was a journalist in Iran – an awarded one. Now she had to leave because the intelligence service was threatening her. This is how Mitra Khalatbari describes how she got out of Iran: “I did not leave Iran legally, but secretly, just like many other journalists did. It was an escape.” In her articles she spoke out against death penalty and for human rights. She published her articles in reformist Iranian newspapers. After the re-election of the hardliner Ahmadinejad on June 12, the situation for critical journalists like her became increasingly dangerous. As Mitra Khalatbari explains: “After the elections, one representative each of the public prosecution office and the censorship board supervised our work in the editorial offices of the reformist newspapers. They defined which articles would be published and which would not.” It was mid June, the time of the mass protests against the re-election of Ahmadinejad, when millions of people chanted “Death to the dictatorship”

Beating up the protesters
The regime felt threatened. Mitra was there, she took pictures although it was forbidden, she saw the courage that ordinary people took to stand up against the regime. Although she could not capture the brutal behavior of the security forces against the protesters – that would have been way too dangerous. But she witnessed it: “I saw how a boy got beaten up by three or four security forces. He was skinny and lank, 17 years old at the most. I felt powerless because I could not do anything.” After her newspaper, which supported the protest movement, was banned in August, she and many other journalists signed an appeal addressed to the leaders of the reformist movement and liberal clerics, calling on them to vigorously stand up against Ahmadinejad. The intelligence responded by massively threatening the signatories, among them was Mitra Khalatbari. “Just like they did with many other journalists, they intimidated me and summoned me by phone. But it got around that it is not a good idea to actually show up at those hearings, because it is possible that you simply vanish and get locked up, with nobody knowing anything about your whereabouts”. She secretly left the country, just like more than 100 other Iranian journalists. A real wave of escape is underway, as confirmed by Reporters without Borders. Dietrich Schlegel, member of Reporters without Borders, describes the situation as follows: “This is unprecedented. I would in fact call it an exodus. This extent, caused by this kind of repression which is imposed on the journalists, is unprecedented, even in other countries.” The regime is determined to violently suppress the unrests. Dozens of demonstrators already died, thousands of them were arrested. Reporters without Borders is trying to gather as much information as possible about the detained journalists. Dietrich Schlegel: “As far as we know, right now 24 journalists and bloggers are still in prison. They are mostly charged with attempts to overthrow the Islamic system or working for the United States, for the evil Satan, or for the Western powers.”

Propaganda show in a small-talk style
Pro-regime journalists staged a poor propaganda show on state-run TV stations. The former vice-president and mastermind of the reformist movement, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, dressed in his prison garb, was forced to confess and express regrets with the cameras running. The journalists in the courtroom had come to terms with the situation, had already become part of the coercive apparatus. And then, the tasteless encore: Abtahi and a fellow inmate have to give an exclusive interview, in a seemingly relaxed ambience. Mohammad Ali Abtahi in this interview said, in a coerced attempt of sounding casual: “I was treated really well in prison”, adding “I even became friendly with the interrogators.” The reporter asks: “May we believe this?” Mohammad Ali Abtahi’s answer: “Yes, the interrogators have been very empathetic.”

Mitra Khalatbari knows the colleagues who work for the state TV. She says: „Many journalists who work for the state-run TV stations are convinced of what they do, and it doesn’t even cross their minds that the public does no longer believe in all this acting.” In Germany, Mitra wants to raise public awareness for the scandalous situation, she has started giving lectures. Since the increase of censorship and the mass escape of journalists, only amateur pictures of the banned demonstrations in Iran are available. Mitra Khalatbari describes the situation of the courageous citizens in Iran: “After the elections all citizens have become journalists. Everyone has a camera, everyone is reporting, spreading news on the internet, on weblogs. The people try to compensate the loss and do the job of the journalists themselves.” Mitra wants to make those voices heard, at least in Germany, so the flow of information about the people’s uprising in her country will not be stopped.

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