Inside view is worth risk, reporters in Iran say

This is what it’s like to be a reporter in today’s Iran: To cover the recent anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, you had to wear a bright yellow bib identifying you as a journalist and sit in a designated area where you could hear and see President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speak, but not the thousands of protesters nearby.

But this is also what it’s like to be a reporter in today’s Iran: You see ordinary people on the bus on the way to work and shopping for groceries in the market. You see not just the angry expressions of demonstrators and police, but the creases of tension along a mother’s forehead, the frowns of worry on the face of a merchant, the glimmers of hope lighting the eyes of a grammar school student.

“There are always considerations here, which make you regret that you can’t cover things like you’d like to and as they really are, or cover them at all to begin with,” said one journalist working for an international news outlet, who spoke on condition that neither she nor her news outlet be identified. “But I think obviously for the sake of journalism, it’s the right way, to be inside the country and down on the streets.”

Iran remains one of the most restricted nations in the world for the practice of journalism, especially after the unrest and crackdown that followed the nation’s disputed June 12 election. Hundreds of local journalists have been arrested. Iranian newspapers have been explicitly warned to stay away from touchy subjects. On Monday, the nation’s media watchdog banned the main reformist daily, Etemaad, as well as the weekly Irandokht and the Hamedan-based periodical Sina.

Much of the once lively international press corps, meanwhile, has been pressured to leave or decided to pull out.

But a number of international news outlets continue to maintain a presence in Tehran, navigating tricky red lines to keep independent eyes on one of the world’s hottest news stories. They say they strive to deliver a balanced picture of Iran’s state of affairs without drawing the attention of authorities.

Sometimes that means asking bureaus in Dubai, Beirut or London to cover sensitive stories on domestic politics or human rights. Other times it means waiting until the government delivers its official spin on a topic before publishing a potentially explosive story.

“The key to surviving here is to make sure that your facts are as straight as they can be in such a polarized situation,” said one longtime Tehran correspondent for a Western news outlet, who asked not to be named because he said keeping a low profile is key to being able to work in Iran. “Accrediting tough statements to politicians, their websites or other official outlets helps keep reporters safe.”

But in conversations with Tehran-based journalists working for international news outlets, they say it’s all worth it.

Angeles Espinosa, the Tehran bureau chief for El Pais, Spain’s largest newspaper, spent Ashura, the Dec. 27 Shiite religious holiday that turned into a violent anti-government protest, driving around town with a kindly Iranian family that rescued her from the maelstrom.

“It was the most wonderful experience,” the 47-year-old said.

Among major U.S. news outlets, the Associated Press, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times maintain accredited correspondents in the Islamic Republic, as do news outlets from dozens of other countries.

The Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance accredits all journalists and monitors their work. Most foreign correspondents in Iran maintain cordial relations with the ministry.

But its credentials don’t necessarily mean protection. Even journalists in good standing with authorities -- such as Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari -- have been jailed as competing security branches jostle for dominance.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists calls Iran the biggest jailer of news-gatherers in the world and helped launch a campaign last month to free at least 60 journalists, bloggers and writers in prison.

Being a journalist in Tehran has been difficult even under the best of circumstances. For foreign correspondents, it takes months and months to get a press visa. Once inside the country, leaving the capital requires special permission, and getting access to officials is close to impossible.

“You spend a lot of time sending faxes with the questions ahead of the interviews,” said Espinosa. “After a couple months you don’t get anything.”

Journalists now grumble that many of the chatty contacts they used to have, such as analysts Issa Saharkhiz or Saeed Laylaz, are in prison.

“The other day I was browsing my phone book, and realized that 95% of the numbers have become irrelevant,” said one journalist working for a Western news outlet in Tehran. “Either they are in jail, seeking asylum abroad or are . . . refusing to speak to me.”

Some Western news outlets rely solely on electronic communications to report on important events in Iran. Journalists in Tehran describe the approach as problematic.

“Who would cover London from Kiev?” said the longtime Tehran correspondent. “Being far away, in a different time zone, even, and relying on Internet sources, it might seem like you are getting good stuff out, but read those stories some months later. Many turn out to have been exaggerated because the sources were emotionally too involved.”

Being in Iran also gives reporters a more multidimensional view.

“There is another part of the society that is happy with the government, and another part that is silent, waiting to see what is going to happen,” Espinosa said. “Living there you have a more nuanced understanding.”