Wednesday, March 05, 2008


Radio Free Europe journalist accuses Iran of intimidation

By Doreen Carvajal

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

PARIS: An Iranian-American radio journalist who is facing a yearlong prison term for her broadcasts to Iran through Radio Free Europe said Wednesday that Iran had threatened to seize her 95-year-old mother's home in Tehran if she did not return to serve a sentence for propaganda.

The journalist, Parnaz Azima, 59, who works for the Persian-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague, said her lawyer in Iran was appealing her conviction Saturday by Tehran's 13th Revolutionary Court for spreading propaganda and working for the "anti-revolutionary" Radio Farda, the Persian-language station of Radio Free Europe.

Azima was one of four Iranian-Americans accused of endangering national security during visits to Iran in 2007. Azima, who had returned to care for her ailing mother, said she was met by two security officials at the airport in Tehran who confiscated her passport. It was the second time that she had been detained about her broadcast work.

"The interrogation was about everything, about my own life," she said. "What was I doing before leaving Iran 25 years ago. What I was doing in my life before coming to Radio Free Europe. And then about what was I doing in Radio Free Europe. And they were always insisting that if I cooperated with them, everything would be closed."

She noted that officials particularly urged her to avoid covering sensitive issues like human rights.

After Azima's conviction was announced, the U.S. State Department condemned the accusations as "baseless." Azima has drawn support from Reporters Without Borders, the media rights group, which views measures against her and other reporters as a wider attempt to intimidate journalists, writers, scholars and activists in Iran.

"My mother's house is under bail for a very expensive amount of money - it's about $600,000," Azima said from Radio Free Europe's headquarters in Prague. "And that was something like hostage-taking."

Executives at Radio Free Europe, which is funded by the United States, charge that Azima's dilemma is part of a broader pattern of threats and intimidation against their journalists that broadcast to many conflict zones in the world. Two of its reporters were killed in Iraq last year, and last weekend employees were beaten and threatened by the police while covering demonstrations in Armenia.

The Iranian authorities, according to the broadcaster, have pursued a softer strategy that relies on criminal charges and relentless pressure on relatives of journalists and sources, including student activists threatened with reprisals if they provide information about demonstrations to the broadcaster.

"The devilish thing about this is that all the tactics are below a certain threshold," said Jeffrey Gedmin, president of the broadcaster. "They're not war crimes. It's not bloodbath. It's not political assassination," he said, adding that the pressure "all has a powerful and a cumulative affect" akin to destroying people without leaving scars.

In the past 12 months, according to the broadcaster, the parents of one Radio Farda employee were forced to pay the equivalent of $50,000 to recover the title of their home in connection with the jailing of the journalist in 2006. The parents of another employee, according to the broadcaster, were warned by another security official that their daughter should stop covering Iranian issues.

In the meantime, Radio Free Europe is using technology to reach Iranians in new ways. In late February, Radio Farda started a new text-message service for Iranians that touches on themes from politics to jokes.

Gedmin conceded that the broadcaster was limited in its options to protect its journalists, but he views the increasing intimidation as a measure of how successful the broadcaster is becoming at identifying sensitive issues.

The interrogators, he said, told Azima "something to the effect that if we find their pressure points, they will find ours."

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