A journalist and an activist tell of four years of struggle under the shadow of arrests, beatings and torture
Nearly four years have passed since the birth of Iran’s green movement. Arising from the massive street protests against the official results of the 2009 presidential election, it endured brutal repression and finally receded in the face of arrests, beatings, and torture. Three of its most prominent figures – Mir-Hossein Mousavi, his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi – have been under house arrest for more than two years. Other movement leaders are in prison or exile.
According to a recent report by the Committee to Protect Journalists,Iranian authorities are holding at least 40 journalists in prison as the June presidential election approaches, the second-highest total in the world. But what has become of others in the movement’s middle ranks inside the country, the political activists and journalists who stayed back?
I meet up with Arash – not his real name – by a newsstand on Tehran’s Enghelab Avenue. He has written for several of the newspapers that passersby are perusing on their way to work. As we walk to a nearby cafe, I ask what drew him to journalism. “Actually, I wanted to be a lawyer,” he replies. “But I was looking for an identity, I wanted to be a part of what the majority of Iranians were experiencing. I saw that in journalism.”
After the 1997 election, which swept the reformist Mohammad Khatami to the presidency, many young Iranians began to define their identities through social action. “Some joined political parties,” Arash explains, “others became involved in university associations. I started working as a journalist in the spring of 2000.”
Early that May, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vexed by the Khatami administration’s relaxation of state media control and censorship, ordered the judiciary to shut dozens of reformist papers in a single day; scores of prominent journalists were arrested in the raids. It was not a good time to set out in the field. Was he afraid?
“I wasn’t really afraid, at least not as much as I am today. We made up the second generation of reformist journalists. There was a strong sense of camaraderie and the fear was less intense because it was shared. There were giants who would take the brunt of the crackdowns, people like [journalists] Akbar Ganji, Shams ol-Vaezin, Masoud Behnood. We, the younger ones, were not the first in line when it came to arrests.”
We enter Cafe Godot, a modern coffee house whose young patrons are filling the air with cigarette smoke. As Arash lights up as well, he tells me about the summer of 2009, when the demonstrations first erupted. What he has to say surprises me.
“I didn’t participate in street protests. Basically, I didn’t believe in those tactics. I believed street presence would be fruitless by itself, that the regime had to be engaged in a dialogue. This point of view resulted in me becoming somewhat isolated among my friends.”
Still, he was not untouched by the crackdown that followed – his girlfriend was summoned to the ministry of information to answer for his writings. “It caused an emotional and ethical upheaval in me. I became more reclusive, more frightful, and in a way, a hostage to events, to fate.
“The self-exile of many of my journalist friends… I think that was the worst blow. I lost many of my friends, my emotional and professional supports…. How long will it take to develop such friendships in my life again? All contacts with friends who have left Iran have been severed, because of my caution and their prudence. I have no contact with anyone on the other side. No one. And you certainly know our situation inside [Iran].”
Chain smoking, he is now on his fourth cigarette. “I feel such monotony,” he continues. “Each day is like the day before; not only do we have no psychological stability, we don’t even have financial security. This profession is the opposite of others. I mean, the more your professional rank rises, the more you’re in danger.”
So why does he persist? Or why not emigrate?
“You know, this job has become a part of my identity,” he says. “To tell you the truth, daily professional stress has become an addiction. Over the last three years I have become very stoic, and since censorship has made publications and dailies ineffectual, I have become more interested in research work.
“If I emigrate, I would be limited to Persian media outlets. And, well, I consider journalism at home more effective and more important,” he says, seemingly contradicting his preceding comment about the ineffectuality of the profession.
In his view, the green movement is not “distilled in demonstrations and politics. It’s a form of social cohesion and solidarity… It has had many other effects, in the arts, in the society at large.”
I ask him about the upcoming presidential election and his hopes for the future. “Hope is not limited to elections,” he muses. “My hope rests on collective exercise of tolerance by the Iranian society and the political powers. Working to learn to listen… The elections are just a family feud within the ruling echelons. See, we are nobodies in these elections.”
Another day, in a distant corner of the city, I visit Ahmad, a political activist whose name has also been changed for this article.
Greeting me with a smile, he ushers me in to his one-bedroom apartment. Shelves filled with books on politics, sociology, and history line the walls; here and there a novel has slipped in.
“In my last year of high school and first year of university, I became attracted to politics,” he tells me. “Not in the sense in which I am involved today, but student activities. They drew me to politics – my first main foray was during the 2005 national elections.”
He worked at the reformist campaign headquarters, but Iranian voters, disenchanted by how little had changed during Khatami’s two terms in office, turned in other directions and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president.
Ahmad had been summoned by his university’s disciplinary committee that year for publishing a series of pro-reformist bulletins. “They gave me a written warning, which could have had dangerous consequences.” But he continued his political activism.
“While the price [of activism] wasn’t that high then, they were escalating step by step,” he says. “The first such toll is like an ugly stigma. When you break through that, then it becomes normal. For example, the summons by the disciplinary committee that year indeed carried a high price, but afterward, even expulsion, which also happened to me, was no longer a big deal. It had become routine. Receiving sentences from judges and spending time in jail also became routine.”
Ahmad says that he was involved in the presidential campaign during 2009 as well. “I had lots of hope. Until two days before the election, I had lots of hope.” He pauses, then carries on. “Two nights before the elections, I felt something was about to happen, [because of] things that Ahmadinejad said in the debates with Mousavi, Khamenei’s June 4 speech, and the way the government began treating the [reformist] campaigners.”
He describes a commentary he wrote, published just three days before the election, in which he called on Iranians to be vigilant to forestall an event like the CIA-sponsored coup d’etat of August 1953 that toppled the democratic government of Mohammad Mosaddegh. “The evening of June 13, 2009, when they started announcing the election results, became one of the worst nights of my life. I was certain that there had been a coup.”
He says that the ensuing arrests of scores of political activists made him fearful, and he stayed away from his home for nearly 10 days until things settled down. “Later on, I discovered that the information ministry officials had been quite focused on me. I learned this from friends who had been summoned to the ministry.”
He says that when it became clear that the green movement was not a fleeting phenomenon, he felt that his political activities had become truly meaningful: “I spent a lot of energy then. I believed that the movement had to continue on its path even if its political aims were not realized in the short term.
“As I had a history of detention, I tried to help people who were arrested… More importantly, we covered events and demonstrations – we would collect photos and videos and send them to foreign media outlets.”
Ahmad says that he was prepared to be arrested at any moment. “I was ready to spend two or three years in prison, and that was not a high price for me. I was ready to pay that cost.”
In December 2009, the government brought the hammer down on dissent, sanctioning savage attacks on street demonstrators. There were no more large-scale protests until spring 2011, after the Arab spring had created an opening. That revival was short-lived, in part due to the incarceration of Mousavi and Karroubi with which the government responded to the marches of 25 Bahman (February 14).
Ahmad concedes that he is no longer as politically active as he once was. “The main reason is that the communal energy has flagged. Not that I feel hopeless, like so many others whose lack of hope made them give up politics. In fact, the level of excitement among us activists is in direct proportion to society’s enthusiasm and dynamism, which, well, has subsided at the moment… But I still hold to the same vision I did prior to the 2009 election.”
Meanwhile, the developments of the last four years have affected him in more personal ways. “I have become a more sensitive person, which is normal. I’ve been detained twice during this period, interrogated and maltreated – events which affect you. My capacity to overlook daily incidents has diminished.”
He describes what it means to be a political activist in the Iran of 2013. “We really don’t have such a thing called politics as it exists in the real world – not when the slightest overt action results in arrests. Most of our activities are in the virtual world, in the domains of Facebook and the Internet. We disseminate the news, launch a tweeter cascade, and of course attend casual gatherings at each other’s homes.”
While he sometimes takes a week or even a month off from all political activity to rest and recuperate, he says he is not about to give up on his activism, or on his country.
“The cost to my personal life has been high… but I never hold society at fault. I have never regretted the path I’ve embarked on. I am not arrogantly proud, but I think I am on the right path.”
What plans does he have for the few weeks remaining until the presidential vote?
“I don’t see much of a role for myself,” he replies. “My level of political activity usually doesn’t mirror society’s, where there is a rise in activity at the approach of elections and then it tapers off. I try to continue at my own tempo.”
At the same time, he observes, one has to take advantage of such moments, especially when it is clear that there are deep rifts within the ruling system.
Ahmad’s mood appears to have changed over the course of our conversation. Speaking with greater ease, he says that if all the progressive political forces in the country focus on a single candidate, he might become active in the campaign, despite all the hardships he has experienced.
Ultimately, he too contradicts himself.
“The reality is that our society’s development process is not one that will get somewhere quickly. We must use every opportunity, in any space that opens up for progress. These types of occasions are chances for resuscitation, for getting small creeks flowing again.
If we don’t take advantage of such opportunities, the society will in all likelihood end up politically incapacitated or dead, leaving a dark void with an unfathomable end. It has happened in other countries.
“I will certainly participate in the electoral sphere, to help nurture democracy even a little. What happened after the 2009 election may recur or a moderate president may come to power. It is a win-win game. Of course, we have to pay the price that comes with it.”