NEW YORK –- As the world watched the Green Movement protests erupt following Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election, the regime responded by brutally cracking down on journalists and opposition figures.
Joel Simon, the executive director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said during a panel discussion Wednesday night that the Iranian regime briefly “lost control of their ability to control, manage and manipulate information” after the election and therefore “lashed out with horrendous brutality.”
Simon was joined on stage Wednesday by Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist and former Newsweek correspondent who was imprisoned and tortured following the 2009 election protests. Like a number of journalists and writers imprisoned since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Bahari was tortured until he confessed to false crimes related to supposedly aiding western forces in trying to topple the Iranian government. Bahari’s new film, “Forced Confessions,” tells his story and the stories others who were tortured by the regime.
Bahari's film was screened prior to the panel, which discussed "Censorship and Power in Iran." It was hosted by CPJ, the PEN American Center and the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
In preparing for next month’s presidential election, Simon said the regime is taking “preemptive” measures and has already jailed 40 journalists. “They’ve sent a clear message that they’re not going to tolerate this type of critical dissent,” he said.
Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who moderated the panel, knows Bahari’s story well. Not only has Stewart had Bahari on his show -– including a 2009 appearance that caused problems during his captivity -– but the host is also taking a hiatus this summer from Comedy Central to direct his first film, based on the journalist’s 2011 book, Then They Came For Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity and Survival.
Stewart asked Bahari if the regime really believed he was a spy working in league with the CIA, Europe and Israel, or whether such charges are “part of a more cynical pattern of intimidation.”
“They genuinely believe that,” Bahari said. “They believe in one entity which they call the ‘global arrogance.’”
“That’d be us, right?” Stewart responded, drawing laughs from the sold-out crowd at the School of Visual Arts Theatre in Chelsea.
“My interrogator used to tell me that it’s common knowledge that all the editors of American magazines and newspapers are part of the intelligence apparatus,” Bahari said.
Bahari said he was abused for propaganda purposes. He compared Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to the head of a studio, overseeing torturers who are like directors forcing those imprisoned “to act out this really crappy script."
Simon spoke later about how the Iranian government once tolerated differences of opinion, whether conservative or reformist, in the press. That conversation moved online following the closure of newspapers, he said. As it becomes harder to control information, and non-professional journalists routinely bear witness to events through social media, Simon said that regimes like Iran's can become even more brutal. He noted that there are 232 journalists currently jailed around the world, the most at any one time in his organization’s three-decade history.
Bahari also noted that the Iranian regime seems to be finding new ways to intimidate journalists, including targeting the families of Iranian journalists abroad. The regime is also adapting to changing technology in trying to monitor Facebook conversations, he said.
“The Iranian regime basically is a 20th-century dictatorship that is operating in the 21st century,” Bahari said. “It is a regime that is able to shut down short-wave radio and newspapers -- but when it comes to the Internet and satellite television, it doesn’t know what to do. So it uses the same methods that it was using in the 20th century. I think it’s just starting to learn how to cope with the new technology.”