Iran Encourages Journalists to Flee

Exiled media corps grows but struggles to make an impact back home.

The Iranian government has effectively encouraged many journalists and political activists to flee the country over the past year in order to rid itself of troublesome elements, assuming that from abroad the activists’ voices will no longer influence Iranian public opinion. So far, it has been largely right.

Following the controversial June 2009 Iranian elections, and subsequent unrest, it is estimated that the number of journalists and other media workers who had left Iran by the end of December ranges from 700 to 1,000, according to figures from media support groups.

Jean François Julliard, the secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, RSF, said in an interview with BBC Persian, “This is the biggest wave of emigration of journalists worldwide.”

By March 2010, more than 110 journalists were detained and the Committee to Protect Journalists has named Iran the world’s number one jailer of journalists.

The journalists who fled or were forced to leave Iran try to continue their work, but they find it hard to get jobs in their host country.

Many went to Turkey, where Iranians do not require an entry visa. Some who had no passport have registered at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but seeking refugee status is a long process.

A former Fars News Agency photojournalist, who asked to be identified as Mohammad M, said many of those who have fled feel they would lose face if they returned and are frightened of the consequences from the authorities.

Mohammad M said, “Even if they return and are not picked up by security forces, they will not be able to find work. Most of the newspapers have been banned and [the journalists who fled] all have targets on their backs, so no one will give them work aside from reformist media outlets. So nothing will really change for them.”

A second journalist colony has grown up in Malaysia, another place where Iranians do not need entry visas. An Iranian journalist who fled there said colleagues seem more positive about their fate, “The guys who are living here are better off and are moving forward. Most of have plans to go to Canada or the United States but overall their situation is not that great. Some of them have rented a place together and are packed in like sardines.”

In the latest wave of emigration, Paris is the choice of some more experienced Iranian journalists. There are those who find hope in the fact that the city has a large colony of expatriate political activists. Others draw strength from the presence in Paris of RSF, which has championed the Iranian journalists’ cause.

However, Reza Moini, the head of RSF's Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan desk, says the body has limited resources and can only offer moral support and reports on the situation of journalists.

Conditions are much harder for Iranian journalists who have gone to Europe due to the high cost of living, the language barrier and unemployment there.

Reza Valizadeh, a former presenter for Iranian state television, says his life in France is as miserable as when he was being interrogated in prison or held in solitary confinement.

In the mid 1990s, Iranians used the word “burned” to refer to the writers, intellectuals and political and social activists who emigrated. The expression reflects the view that dissidents living abroad lose both their voice and influence as they struggle to cope with the high cost of living in the West.

Realising this, the Iranian security system sought to make life more difficult for political activists and intellectuals in order to force them to leave voluntarily.

Many documentary filmmakers, directors, journalists and writers were summoned to courts or the prosecutor’s office and charged with serious offences like acting against national security or making propaganda against the establishment.

They were warned of the heavy punishment for such crimes – usually long jail sentences – to encourage them to flee the country. In reality, the government made little effort to prevent them from leaving, ridding itself of them once and for all.

Maryam A, an Iranian photojournalist who recently fled to the United States, said, "My interrogator advised me to leave the country. He told me westerners are leading you journalists down the garden path so why don't you leave? If you stay here you have to spend at least four of the best years of your life in prison, much of it in solitary confinement."

Only prominent figures are placed under strict government surveillance and officially barred from leaving Iran.

But what the government overlooked was that unlike the 1980s and 1990s, the internet has revolutionised communications. In those days, the “burned” writers had no way of accessing news from inside the country or keeping in regular contact with their colleagues scattered across the globe.

With the help of the internet and social networks, the new emigrants have a longer reach and a louder voice compared to their predecessors. After becoming established in their new host countries, they could use their experience in reporting and analysis for an audience in Iran and become a major challenge to the way the authorities seek to monopolise information.

As recent emigrants, they are close enough to the people left behind to be serious analysts on the subject of modern day Iran. Unlike the previous generation of emigrants, who are viewed by many Iranians within the country as opportunists, the new exodus are less ambitious and less commercially-minded in the way they market themselves.

Many of these expatriates are freelancing for a small number of diaspora Persian websites or just blogging, while a few are improving their skills. Some feel they have the potential to challenge the Iranian government by highlighting its mistakes through careful argument and documentary evidence.

However, they have yet to prove themselves effective in this regard. They do not function well in the countries where they take refuge, as some are living in wretched and pitiful conditions and fighting for survival in their daily lives. Their mindset has not yet adjusted to the new environment, and many of them are still hesitant to work outside the country and afraid of being abused by the better established exiled opposition groups.

Moreover, many do not want to run the risk that their activities might lead the Iranian government to cause problems for their families still inside Iran.

And no Iranian or international organisation has stepped forward to organise and fund a body to unite the new exiled dissidents.

Mehdi Jedinia is an Iranian journalist in Washington. He is currently the editor-in-chief of the Persian language satellite channel WIN TV. He was formerly an editor-in-chief for the English daily Tehran Times in Iran.