Friday, February 08, 2008


INTERVIEW: An Iranian journalist speaks out against censorship


Things haven't been easy for Arash Sigarchi. At the age of 27, he was sent to prison for writing articles criticizing the leader of the Islamic Republic and aspects of life in Iran. He was first sentenced to 14 years, charged with "insulting Mr. Khamenei in his writings, collaboration with hostile governments, giving interviews to foreign media, and incitement of the public mind." His sentence was subsequently commuted to 3 years, of which he has served 14 months. During his time in prison, he found a lump in his mouth. It was cancer. He underwent an operation to excise the tumor as a result of which he lost part of his tongue. When he was in prison, his brother, Ashkan was also killed in a car accident while carrying a letter on behalf of Sigarchi to one of his lawyers, Ms. Shirin Ebadi. Ashkan, an accomplished musician, was just 26 years old. It was a terrible tragedy for the entire Sigarchi family.

Even though life has been unfair, Sigarchi never let tragedy get the better of him. He never became bitter or angry. He never stopped having a positive outlook in life. Moreover, he never lost his passion for journalism.

Sigarchi began his career in journalism when he was just 15 years old. A native of the Gilan province of northern Iran, he gained acclaim for his work as editor of Gilan Emrooz, the province's major newspaper. When he was no longer able to publish the kind of stories he wanted to in the paper, he decided to start a blog called Panjereh Eltehab, which means "window of anxiety." For his courage and dedication in the field of journalism in Iran, Arash Sigarchi received the Hellman/Hammett award in 2007.

IJNet had a chance to speak with this accomplished journalist about his life and career in Iran.

IJNET: When were you born and where in Iran?

Arash Sigarchi: I was born into a cultured family on October 26, 1978 in Rasht. My family has always been interested in the arts and music. My father was a composer and played traditional Iranian music.

IJNET: When did you first start writing, and when did you become attracted to journalism as a profession?

AS: I started to write very early. My mother taught me to read and write when I was five years old. As a result, my love of writing began much earlier than my contemporaries. But when, at the age of 15, I realized I could work without a salary for a weekly sports magazine, I tried to steer my writing in that direction. It was there that I understood that the writing of a writer is very different from the writing of a reporter because a reporter must always remain neutral.

After that, I began work without a salary as a reporter with Gam newspaper in 1993. After several months, I started to work for the newly established Hamshahri newspaper in Tehran, where I earned a salary as a journalist for the first time. After that, I worked as a paid writer for national newspapers for some time until Seyyed Mohammad Khatami became president and working conditions became more suitable for journalists. Like many other journalists, after June 1997 I worked at newly established newspapers. This did not last long: after the "Black" May of 2000, all such newspapers were shut down.

IJNET: Tell us about the Gilan-e Emrouz newspaper. How many reporters worked there and what kind of topics did the paper cover?

AS: After the closure of the press in the spring of 2000, I returned to Rasht and reached an agreement with the Managing Director of Gilan-e Emrouz—which was about to begin publication—to work with that newspaper. After I had worked as a reporter for a month, he appointed me the supervisor of the newspaper's writers. Several months later he officially appointed me Editor-in-Chief.

Aside from news about the State of Gilan, our newspaper had pages dedicated to sports, women and the youth, politics, economics, culture, and art. Each of these sections had its own independent reporter and journalists. Unfortunately, after the difficulties that the regime created for me, the newspaper remained in the hands of those who had a self-centered mode of thinking. At this time, only a handful of people work at this newspaper. The majority of those people do not produce news stories but continue to publish the newspaper by copying onto it news from websites. Since people read the news on the Internet, the newspaper's readership has decreased.

IJNET: How is the present era different from the Khatami era for reporters?

AS: The important difference is that Mr. Khatami understood what a newspaper is. However, Mr. Ahmadinejad does not understand this and that is only natural. Mr. Khatami was in charge of the government-run Keyhan newspaper and knows what journalism is. He knows what is appropriate and what is not. Mr. Khatami even knows the mistakes involved in reporting. And Mr. Ahmadinejad? At the suggestion of his advisors, when faced with reporters, he only strikes poses and attitudes. He has heard that he must defend freedom of expression. However, in practice, any one who criticizes the government will be punished severely. At present, many of the local newspapers in the states and provinces in Iran are out of favor, due to their criticism of Ahmadinejad.

The issue is not limited to Mr. Ahmadinejad. When the country's highest executive does not know how to have a dialogue with reporters, his behavior influences those who work under him. During Mr. Khatami's presidency, because he considered himself answerable to reporters, the executives who worked under him made an effort to treat reporters in a civil manner. Do you think institutions such as the Council of Guardians or the Judicial Branch had spokespersons—who would communicate with the press regularly and inform them of the latest news--from the very beginning? No, that was not the case. Only the Khatami administration tried to keep reporters abreast of the latest developments in the government. At that time, no institution considered itself accountable to any one regarding any matter. After Khatami, these institutions learned that they can interact with members of the press. Therefore, we must not ignore these differences.

IJNET: What is the state of journalism in Iran? At which stage is it? Where do its difficulties lie?

AS: I prefer to say that Iranian journalism is in a coma. "Being in a coma" means being unconscious and waiting to become conscious. In Iran, various institutions—from the military to the law and order and security apparatuses and even the offices of the clergy—consider it their right to manipulate the media in reliance upon reasons such as "safeguarding national security" and "strengthening the regime." By citing "prevention of the weakening of the regime" as their excuse, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, forces of law and order, and the government bureaucracy all try to create restrictions for or set limitations on the flow of news. Even the offices of the Supreme Leader's [Ayatollah Khomeini's] representatives in various cities and towns try to apply pressure to journalists.

At present, the work atmosphere is so disappointing that most journalists have chosen to remain silent. Press agencies are under strict surveillance and scrutiny by the Public Prosecutor of the Tehran Judiciary. At the same time, we must not forget that, in Iran, censorship is carried out in a completely systematic way. The Supreme Council on National Security regularly issues warnings to newspapers about topics they should not write about. By periodically issuing summons to journalists and interrogating them, the Prosecutor's Office warns them as well. The Press Supervisory Committee, which has suspended about 17 publications, also sets limitations. This committee's main responsibility is to analyze the issuance of permits for publications and, it goes without saying that it is also charged with the responsibility to issue a warning to a publication if it has published something contrary to Islam or the regime.

On the other hand, in Iran publications must have a managing director. In recent years, many managing directors themselves have started to create restrictions for, and censor, reporters and journalists.

IJNET: How many bloggers and websites are there in Iran?

AS: No exact numbers exist but, according to government statistics, there are over 16 million Internet users in Iran and we can say that there are about 1.6 to 1.8 million webblogers in Iran. Of course, the number of Iranian webloggers who are abroad should also be added to the above numbers. The number of websites is also significant, especially because--since the last days of the Khatami administration--all governmental apparatuses and officers are duty-bound to set up a website for However, we must still bear in mind that the Internet and its use are still very new in Iran.

IJNET: Why where you imprisoned ?

AS: I believe my efforts to spread the growth of journalism and train journalists, as well as my insistence on defending the freedom of press, were the reasons why the regime confronted me. I believe that news must be published uncensored and, on this basis, when I was pressured not to publish certain articles in the newspaper, I used my own weblog .

IJNET: How do you see the future of journalism in Iran?

AS: I am optimistic. The existence of the Internet and the spread of the media make me optimistic about the future of journalism [in Iran]. On the other hand, 70 percent of the population of Iran is under the age of 40: this means that Iran is a young country and I am hopeful that this youthful energy will free itself from the grips of censorship. I am certain that the Internet and the media will bring about major transformations in this society.

Iranian journalists are not separate from ordinary Iranians. In fact, I am sure that, in the future, many of these youth will learn and understand more about journalism and censorship. When a stream encounters a rock in its path, it does not stand still and turn into a pool of stagnant water but finds its way around the rock!

IJNET: In which areas do Iranian journalists need assistance?

AS: I believe that the most important matter is increasing their level of awareness. You may find it interesting to know that, in Iran, there exist 3,000 active local newspapers and weekly and monthly publications. Of course, most of these publications suffer from lack of knowledge in many areas and do not have trained personnel for specialized reporting. I realized this in a trip I took from state to state in Iran and I am now in the final phases of compiling a book entitled, "Local Journalism." If this book is completed and made available to my colleagues in local publications, it can create a transformation in journalism in Iran. This book will teach journalists to practice journalism in a more professional way, to increase the sale of their newspapers and to attract readership. I wrote this book on the basis of my own experiences, in the course of which, through the journalism courses I taught, I helped turn many young people—who were interested in but uninformed about journalism—into professional journalists! One day, I would like to put this work online so that all journalists in Iran can use it. I owe it to them.

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