November 26, 2005
Iran’s Immured Voice
by Sherry Harbert
Iran’s voice does not lie with its chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, at a table with the International Atomic Energy Agency. It is not pronounced in the incendiary speeches of President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad. Nor does it reveal itself with the interpretations of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iran’s voice lies in an isolated cell in Evin prison, Iran, far removed from Portland, Oregon.
Iran’s unlikely voice emanates from the writings and plight of jailed journalist Akbar Ganji. Though he is certainly not the only preeminent voice in Iran, Ganji’s struggle is one that has resonated throughout the world—and provided a catalyst for many Iranians disillusioned with the political, cultural and economic situation in their country. Ganji is part of the reformist movement in Iran which struggles for internal change toward democracy, human rights and freedom of speech. For Ganji, and many others, it has meant risking their lives.
Iranian hardliners silenced many reformers and journalists after an independent media boom in the late 1990s. But in 2000, the same year Ganji was arrested, a majority of independent publications were closed. It has become worse since the installation of Ahmadi-Nejad’s government. The Iranian Student News Agency reported in October that the Tehran’s Provincial Court will review over 130 publications within the next three months.
Even in prison, Ganji witnessed the destruction of almost all independent media in Iran by the Ministry of Culture, to include newspapers, books, film, radio and music. Many journalists and reformers experienced the same conditions of harassment, jail and torture. But Ganji proved more difficult than the hardliners imagined. He refused to be silenced, even in prison. On June 11, he used the only means left to him to communicate his plight—a hunger strike.
Timed just before Iran’s June elections, Ganji’s act of defiance was to protest his incarceration and bring awareness to the government’s hard-line approach. Though too late for influencing the election, Ganji’s hunger strike generated world attention.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and President George W. Bush, along with Nobel laureates, human rights organizations and much of the world media declared their condemnation over Ganji’s imprisonment. Ganji did not sit by quietly. Even as his body was slowly deterioting, he went far beyond the "redline" system limiting all criticism of the government and leardership. He affirmed his continued fight for democracy, equal rights and separation of government from private life and the separation of religion from government in several letters smuggled out of prison.
Ganji’s most courageous statement came with his "Republican Manifesto." Once smuggled out to his supporters, it revealed his outright attack of the authority of Iran’s Supreme Leader. In response, he was denied family and legal visitation, until the leadership relented to outside pressure. Near death, Ganji ended his 71-day hunger strike, Aug. 23, at the request of his family and legal team. But soon after his hunger strike ended, so too ended much of the world’s attention.
Despite the outcries, Iran re-jailed Ganji after a two-week recovery. Since then, little news has surfaced of his condition. Iran is happy to keep him far away from the media and thus far from the headlines. Only sparse reports from his wife, Massoumeh Shafiie, reveal his dire situation. Of last report on November 19, his wife stated Ganji’s health was quickly deteriorating.
Portland to Host Shirin Ebadi
Ganji has not been alone in his fight for reforms and freedoms. He has many advocates, with Portland playing a role. One of the most famous is 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi. Ebadi will be in Portland in May, as part of the 2006 International Speakers Series of the World Affairs Council of Oregon.
Ebadi is an advocate for Ganji and many others in Iran. As co-founder and President of the Human Rights Defense Center in Tehran, Ebadi has defended journalists, women, children and others suffering repression and poverty. Ebadi’s accomplishments are stunning on their own merits, let alone under the dire political and social conditions in Iran.
Ebadi became Iran’s first female judge in 1975, only to lose the position when the 1979 Revolution declared it illegal for women to serve as judges. She was finally granted a license to practice law in 1992. By 2002, she had won a major victory with the the ratification of a law banning all forms of violence against children by the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majlis). With Iranian estimates of 100,000 homeless children alone in Iran, her advocacy for children and women is critical.
Ebadi is also an accomplished writer. She has published over a dozen books on almost every aspect of law, besides articles and posting online. Her work has not gone unnoticed by the Iranian leadership. She has been threatened and harrassed for fighting against the government’s accusations of acts against the state and Islam. Yet, Ebadi has in no way deterred from her Islamic religion. She has continuously avowed her rights and ideals under Islam. During her Nobel presentation speech, Ebadi was praised for her efforts in democracratic reform and human rights as a conscious Muslim. It is a point taken by almost all reformers in Iran. And, one to heed by the West if it is to understand the great strides and future of the reformist movement in Iran.
An Internal Fight
Unlike Iraq, the reformist movement in Iran has worked to build a substantial, yet increasingly fragile infrastructure of democratic ideals and freedoms. The reformists maintain their capacity to institute those ideals within their Islamic beliefs. It is something that many Iranian citizens are fervent to convey in their internal struggle. It is for outside pressure, not outside interference. It is also what scares the hardliners in power. And why the Ahmadi-Nejad government is bent on crushing the reform movement. Afterall, Ahmadi-Nejad found victory much easier to attain after the Guardian Council rejected the campaign applications of over 1,000 reformist candidates.
It is remarkable that Ganji, like many other reformers, presents a such a problem for the Iranian government. He was, after all, one of the students that opened the seats of power to Iran’s new political and clerical rulers with the 1979 Islamic Revolution, ending the regime of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi and any official dialogue with U.S. For Ganji and many others, overthrowing the repressive Shah, was a chance for freedom, justice and self-determination.
It was viewed very differently in the U.S.
As the events unfolded on television each night, few Americans realized the U.S. helped reinstall the Shah to power in 1953, without any condemnation for his human rights abuses. Many Iranians felt bitterly betrayed. So as millions of horrified Americans watched the daily countdown of the Hostage Crisis for 444 days, little was revealed to suggest why the events unfolded. It changed the governments in both countries. Even now, the U.S. State Department avoids any mention of U.S. involvement in Iran. Yet, for most of the Iranians living under the repression of the Shah, the revolution was their first glimpse of freedom.
But freedom without fundamental rights and protections became a vacuum filled by another repressive system. Iran’s new rulers, under the Ayatollah Khoemani, revised the nation’s constitution to endow a theocratic system over limited democratic practices. One of the first responses of the new government was to take away many of the rights of women, even though they marched hand-in-hand with their fellow male students during the uprisings. It wasn’t long before many of them grew disillusioned under the strict confines of the new leadership. Instead of the pluralistic ideals they envisioned with a new government, they soon experienced repression from a new fundamentalist regime.
Ganji, along with fellow students like Mohsen Mirdamadi and Sa’eed Hajjarian, transitioned into the reformist movement that today pushes for democracy and a free press in Iran. Hajjarian and Ganji wrote and edited for the same reformist newspaper, Sobh-e-Emrouz. Mirdamadi’s newspaper, Norouz was shut down in 2002, which included a series of articles addressing relations with the U.S. Hajjarian was shot in the face in 2000 for his journalism, yet survived. Ganji was arrested with 17 other Iranian intellectuals upon returning to Iran from a religious and political reform conference, sponsored by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin, Germany, in 2000. He was detained in jail until May, 2001, when he was officially sentenced to six years for writing articles linking senior officials with murders of journalists and political activists, called the "Chain Murders."
Ganji and his fellow reformers are joined by a growing number of young students who are both willing to continue the fight with an added weapon—technology. As weblogs and internet have opened communication for many Iranians, it has also opened many others to their plight throughout the world.
Portland Writer Joins Call
With the growing coverage of Ganji’s plight over the summer from many outlets, his name was but a whisper in the U.S. Except for the New York Sun and occasional columns in the Wall Street Journal and Max Boot’s syndicated editorial in August, the U.S. airwaves and print outlets have largely ignored Ganji. It is one of the reasons why one Portland man decided he must step forward. So, while Ganji’s fate in Iran seemed miles away, Goudarz Eghtedari brought it closer to home.
Portland writer and teacher Goudarz Eghtedari joined the many voices over the summer calling for immediate redress. During the height of Ganji’s hunger strike, Eghtedari began a campaign of his own for Ganji’s release and to bring awareness of the social issues facing Iranians. Eghtedari, a member of the Iranian Studies Advisory Board at Portland State University and producer of the Voices of the Middle East program on Portland radio KBOO, posted an online petition demanding Ganji’s release. He first garnered 64 signatories from academic colleagues throughout the world. Since then it has grown to almost 1,000 names, including many journalists in Iran.
Though the petition gave Eghtedari a voice in favor of Ganji’s release, it did not transfer much beyond the written form to the general public. And so Eghtedari went one step further. He chose to participate in a 48-hour hunger strike with three others to coincide with a similar protest in Tehran, Aug. 6-7. It also coincided with the Sixth Annual Iranian Festival at Portland State University. Surrounded by festive music, sweet scents of honey desserts and 40 booths offering art, information and film, Eghtedari stood solemn in front of his booth dedicated to Ganji’s plight.
Eghtedari’s booth was noticeably different from the others at the festival. Instead of art or other Persian crafts highlighting Iranian-Americans, Eghtedari’s booth was rather stark. Only photos of Ganji greeted those that passed by. A table inside the booth was filled with literature of Ganji’s work and the petitions seeking his release.
Eghtedari’s face showed no signs of a hunger strike like the photos that depicted Ganji’s ravaged body. No sunken cheekbones, listless eyes or hollow expression were evident during that sunny afternoon in downtown Portland, Oregon. But, Eghtedari’s intention wasn’t to replicate the face of a man who was on a prolonged hunger strike. It was simply to personalize Ganji’s plight.
"When we did this hunger strike here at the Iranian Festival, we had a one-on-one," said Eghtedari. "It gave it a human face."
That human face is still important to remind those around the world of the condition of Ganji and his fellow journalists. The French advocacy group, Reporters Without Borders, listed Iran as one of the worst countries for freedom the press and journalists in its annual report, released in Oct.
Eghtedari believes the more pressure placed on the Iranian government will help open the country to new freedoms. Otherwise, Ahmadi-Nejad’s new regime will continue to crush any democratic reform. He says that the Iranian voters were faced with the dilemma of deciding between economic issues or political reform. The tightening of political opposition in exchange for the promise of better economic conditions won. He calls it the "China-zation" of Iran.
"There were economic reasons behind the election of Ahmadi-Nejad," he said. "They look at the global world. They have demands. That is the issue. It was a populist agenda to try to get more people to vote for him." Ahmadi-Nejad is still using that precedence to maintain power. He recently proposed plans to distribute cash to newlyweds.
Indeed, Ahmadi-Nejad’s election campaign resonated with voters experiencing high inflation and unemployment, according to the International Crisis Group. The non-governmental organization also cited voters’ dismay with the lack of change promised by former President Mohammed Khatami’s moderate reform agenda. According to the ISG Aug. 4 report, the reformers were unable to offer strong candidates. And even if they had, the 12-member Guardian Council demonstrated its veto power by unqualifying 1,000 candidates two weeks before the June 17 election. The conservatives used whatever weaknesses it saw in the reformist movement as a way to crush their momentum.
But as hard as the conservatives try to rally students in its staged protests denouncing the world and most recently, Israel, it is the education system that provides the reformers with similar advantages. Eghtedari says one positive outcome that began with Iran’s last major political change, the 1979 Islamic Revolution, was the free university system.
"The university system has educated a large number of people in the cities and rural areas," said Eghtedari. "Every small town has a university branch. The university brings internet access to the people."
That technology is one way Eghtedari keeps in contact with Iranians. He talks weekly with fellow Iranians inside and outside the country through internet conference sessions on Paltalk.com. Along with the thousands of weblogs, Iranians are getting their message out through new technology. But Eghtedari points out that even with a free university education and a branch in each town, only the elite and upper class have access to private internet service.
Such technology advances in Iran come twofold. On one side, private service providers are investing in Iran and the Iranians are jumping at the chance to publish web sites and blogs.
"The potential for the internet is great," said Eghtedari. "There is a high number of bloggers. And not all have political agendas."
But as the younger generations embrace the internet, the older one in the government is looking to shut it down. The issue has caught the attention of the U.S. Congress, which referred the Global Internet Freedom Act to the Committee on International Relations in May to develop and deploy technologies to defeat the internet jamming in countries like Iran. According to The OpenNet Initiative, a research consortium, it has done little to curb Iran’s blocking of certain content on the web, particularly dissident groups.
Hussein Bastani of the Iran Gooya Media Group, which created plans for a Dutch-based Iranian satellite channel, told the Dutch government that the reason why the Iranian government is shutting down all the independent newspapers and internet sites is because such press freedom opened the door to the reformers.
Iran’s growing juggernaut over the media weakens the chances for the reformers to succeed. Ahmadi-Nejad’s reported distaste for the media has added to the destruction of a free press in Iran. His choice of cabinet members also tells of the government’s agenda to silence the opposition media and its politics. Ahmadi-Nejad proposed Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehei, an Islamic cleric known as an opponent of press freedom, as his intelligence minister. He is joined by the likes of Saeed Mortazavi, the judge overseeing the demise of many Iranian publications in the Provincial Court.
Continued Dialogue is Essential
Reformers in Iran warn that further isolation by the world will have dire affects in the country. It is echoed by many Iranian writers and bloggers who still find ways to publish outside the growing confines in Iran. One of those sites is Rooz Online. There, Iranian journalists, reformers, activists and human rights advocates including Ebadi, regularly post stories and news about much of what is happening in Iran.
With the visions still fresh of the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine and the student protests in Tehran in 2003, the U.S. may be lulled into believing that the Iranian population will rise up and throw out the current regime. But Eghtedari sees no imminent uprising, as does the ICG. The ICG’s first point in its August 2005 overview of Iran is that the current regime is unlikely to collapse and that ongoing dialogue and negotiations are essential. It sites Ganji as the first test in an important symbolic gesture by the Ahmadi-Nejad government to ongoing engagement.
Eghtedari sees Ganji as a catalyst for change, but only if pressure from around the world continues.
"Ganji has made his effect," he said. "The government should be kept responsible. People around the world should rise up and question them."
When asked how he would respond if Ganji was allowed to die, Eghtedari said he couldn't think of that. And then he added, "I’m trying to publicize that someone is dying for this issue."
© 2005 Foreign Interest. All rights reserved.
For more information:
Goudarz Eghtedari: www.voicesofthemiddleeast.com
Free Akbar Ganji Petition: www.petitiononline.com/Ganji/
The United Nations: www.un.org
International Crisis Group: www.crisisgroup.org
Rooz Online: http://roozonline.com