Mr. Ahmadinejad has a history with the western (particularly American) press. Despite the fact that he knows they won’t present him in a positive light, while visiting the U.S., he usually appears on all major networks armed with sardonic smiles and categorical denials of all accusations. A pragmatic politician, he has a clear and rather simple use for these interviews: documenting his heroic act of exposing western superpowers for their exploitation of the disadvantaged nations. Back in Iran, the state-run TV put clips from these interviews to good use for consumption in Iran and the neighboring countries. They are usually paired with domestic interviews in which Mr. Ahmadinejad boasts about his western media appearances as brave public encounters with imperialism and messages of hope to the oppressed masses in the U.S., and elsewhere in the world.
After, the troubled June elections in Iran, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s manipulation of the western media appears to have entered a new and important phase: using them to testify to the existence of popular support for his government. On February 11, over 300 foreign reporters, invited to Iran by his government, will report on the public celebration of the Revolution’s 31st anniversary. This could be one of the most paradoxical instances in their reporting career. What their cameras share with the world may help Mr. Ahmadinejad and his allies conceal the truth about the strength of the opposition in the country. Let me explain.
Last June, foreign reporters were expelled from Iran because what they reported at the time did not resemble a celebration in the least. The election, viewed by the protesters as rigged, ignited massive anti government demonstrations which were suppressed brutally by the militia of the Revolutionary Guards, the Basij. Iranian reporters were not as lucky as their foreign counterparts. Sixty-five of them have so far been jailed as the government equated reporting the events with treason.
In the meantime, the strategy of expelling journalists worked for the Iranian government. As close to eighty civilians were killed and thousands jailed, the world begun to hear less and less about them. The clashes were moved from the streets, where brutality created headlines, to prisons and interrogation rooms where torture, threat of harm to the suspects’ family, and harsh sentences went relatively unnoticed.
That the Iranian Green movement is not in the headlines often enough is great news for Mr. Ahmadinejad. Using the resources of his government, he is moving to seal the “success” with a staged rally of unity on February 11. For days now, Basij family and friends have been bussed from cities to Tehran. On the “celebration” day, schools will close for the students to participate and government-run businesses bus their employees to designated locations. In a city of ten million, and with help from the provinces, it will not be difficult to line up a hundred thousand marchers along a designated route. Along this route, instead of teargas and batons, cake and fruit juice will be served as “revolutionary” tunes, blared form loud speakers a hundred yards apart, will dampen the noise of unwanted slogans. As for the defiant marchers, they will be trapped in side streets – where their possible beating up and arrest will not be captured by the foreign press.
The question is how could the western press avoid becoming a tool for publicizing Mr. Ahmadinejad’s presentation of Iran as embracing his government and opposing the west? Should these reporters reject the invitation? After all, they were not allowed to report what unfolded on the streets of Iran only a few months ago. Why should they now serve to publicize a staged celebration?
Desirable as this refusal may be, it is unlikely to happen. Censorship creates a thirst for information which will pursue any opportunity, even in the most unlikely places. Mr. Ahmadinejad makes use of this thirst in his own visits to the U.S. Despite his frequent lies and half baked truths, networks compete with each other to interview him as if he would someday confess to an undisclosed truth.
There is a group that understands the dilemma facing the western press well, Iranian journalists in exile. On Saturday, February 6, over fifty of these reporters published a moving open letter to their western counterparts heading for Iran. “We are a group of Iranian Journalists forced into exile” they said “there are many like us scattered in the world. At least forty-five of us will be behind bars in horrifying prisons subjected to torture as you visit Iran. Dear colleagues! Our only fault is that we wish to report the events taking place in our country freely.”
“With hearts that seek freedom, and eyes moist with tear,” the letter continued “we will be following you on your historical journey. See, what you should really see! Hear the true voices of the people! And expose the deceitful game the government is staging for the world!” Then, the Iranian journalists provided their colleagues with helpful hints: “The demonstrations begin the night before. The shouts of God is Great will echo in all cities. These reflect the protests of the Green Iran and are the prelude to a march by millions of people who will come out on February 11 in response to the call of Mr. Khatami, Mousavi, and Karrubi. The main route is the Enghelab Street from Imam Husain Square in Eastern Tehran to Azadi Square in the west. The Revolutionary Guards will block all the side streets leading to Enghelab. The Green Movement will be seen in these side streets and all over Tehran NOT on the route officially prepared for the government marchers.”
“You will be our representative” they concluded “we will give you the names of our captive colleagues listed by Reporters without Borders. Please seek them, find them, and ask them – and their captors – why are they behind bars.” Alas, the community of captive Iranian journalists has already grown to sixty-five since this letter was written. These new journalists, quite a few of them women, have been arrested to ensure no real reporting happens on February 11.
FATEMEH KESHAVARZ is Chair of the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literature at Washington University and the author of Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran.