This is the fifth in a series of interviews with Iranian journalists and writers who have dedicated their careers to communicating Iran's complexities and contradictions to those outside of the country. Read the full series here.
Omid Memarian, as a successful and widely read journalist in Iran, and now in the United States, covering Iran for both Iranian and English-speaking audiences, what is it like navigating these two media environments?
When I worked in Iran as a journalist, I used to hang out with foreign reporters. I was curious about they way they approached stories, particularly in a country where everything needs a very strong context, and especially as many of these reporters never spent more than two weeks in the country. We also talked much about the ethics of journalism. All of that sparked and deepened my fascination with US journalism.
When I arrived at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, I had so much to learn. I was already skilled at interviewing people, gathering information, comprehending the big picture and addressing the public good. But at Berkeley learned a lot about narrative structure and the organization of storytelling. Also the importance of simple, clear sentences and the role of the human element in stories. It transformed my thinking about news and feature stories. I also learned about the evolution of law and ethics in journalism over the last two centuries, which explains why the media now play such an important role in shaping public opinion and holding the powerful accountable.
What differences do you see now, as an American-trained journalist, between US and Iranian journalism?
In the US there is a vibrant connection between journalism schools and media outlets. In Iran there is no such a tradition. Journalists learn what they do by trial and error. Some journalists even disparage those who join newsrooms straight out of journalism school as they believe you learn journalism by doing, not in the classroom. There is actually a sense of antagonism towards academic training in Iranian newsrooms.
The economy of the media, management, and media laws in Iran are also very primitive compared to the US. US media is very adaptable, innovative. There’s been an evolution in business models in US media over the past decade. Most Iranian newspapers live on state subsidies. Major publications that cover politics and social issues face an extreme level of censorship and could be shut down at any moment if they cover an issue that state entities or powerful individuals do not like.
These subsidies have a destructive impact, in that they don’t allow media to play by the rules of business and commit to professionalism. It’s like a rentier state: no matter how they perform, at the end of the month there is money going into their pockets to keep them alive. The political environment’s instability is also a factor in keeping independent Iranian media weak and vulnerable. Iranian media suffer much from the judiciary’s lack of independence and the dominance of Iran’s intelligence services. This kills innovation, quality reporting and investment, both from the economic and human resources aspects.
How does your writing for Iranian audiences and English-speaking audiences differ?
When you write for an English-speaking audience you have to identify what matters most to them. If I pitch a story, for instance, on Iran’s parliamentary elections, I define the story from the perspective of US-Iran relations and how it would affected by the election result. Once that’s established, I can explain the power dynamics and inside politics.
The US media’s interest in covering Iran-related issues also shifts. For example, during the nuclear negotiations you could write stories on sanctions, economic hardship, the balance of power between moderates and hardliners, even tourism. As long as you could connect the story to the nuclear talks, it was relevant.
“The US media’s interest in covering Iran-related issues also shifts. For example, during the nuclear negotiations you could write stories on sanctions, economic hardship, the balance of power between moderates and hardliners, even tourism. As long as you could connect the story to the nuclear talks, it was relevant.”
Publications have their own agendas and highlight stories that support their narratives. For instance, a few weeks before Iran made a deal with the so called 5+1 counties to curb its nuclear program, I published a story in Politico, explaining a harsh speech made by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. My overall point was that regardless of his harsh comments, he was willing to make the deal, and that his remarks were for domestic consumption. Obviously this would not have been appealing to right-wing media like Fox News, Townhall or The Washington Times, who were banking on the failure of the nuclear talks. But beyond partisan/ideologically oriented publications there is a wide range of US outlets that are interested in fair reporting.
There’s a group of journalists inside Iran who work for reformist-leaning media, and politically identify with this current. Do you identify with this group?
Iranian journalism in general is very partisan. When you look at the history of American journalism, you see a period where journalists were partisan, papers were shut down, and journalists were jailed, years after the constitution was ratified. But over time it changed. Journalists learned that in order to protect the media they should be independent, and distanced themselves from political parties and politicians.
I understand why in Iran this hasn’t happened yet: mainly because the state does not recognize political parties as major players in the political life of the country. Parties can’t have their tribunes. They don’t have their media. So the place to preach their political agenda is newspapers or news websites. Journalists can follow and support certain values, including the ideals and values that reformists or conservatives pursue. But supporting these ideas does not mean journalists owe anything to political parties or politicians.
For example, the foundation of my work might be human rights, democracy, justice, government accountability. At one point, reformists might have been the ones who held these values. Which doesn’t mean that if they did something contrary to these values I should close my eyes to it. But on both sides of the political spectrum reporters are so close to politicians that it seems that they act as their public relations people. That’s very harmful for journalists and the media as a whole.
Your career as a journalist inside of Iran has had its highlights: you’ve received accolades such as the Golden Pen. But you’ve also clashed with authorities on account of your reporting. Tell us about these ups and downs, and what finally led you to leave Iran.
In Iran, you don’t need to go after the authorities to get into trouble. By merely following the common sense line and raising simple questions within broad political and social red lines you could be targeted. One of the major areas I covered was the development of civil society organizations, democracy building, citizenship rights and the like. I wrote for news outlets, attended conferences abroad and I was the editor-in-chief of a quarterly magazine devoted to these issues. These topics may not seem as sensitive as issues like corruption, political conflicts or human rights violations, but at the time the security establishment and judiciary were very suspicious of the role of civil society and those who promoted it. They believed, and still do, that civil society is a tool used by the Americans to change the society from within and ultimately overthrow it.
“There were, and still are, people in Iran who believe that by empowering civil society organizations, political parties and independent media, the Islamic Republic might change gradually from within. On the other side, there are forces trying to prove them wrong, and one way to do so is by making the environment so threatening that no one dare stay active in the field.”
There were, and still are, people in Iran who believe that by empowering civil society organizations, political parties and independent media, the Islamic Republic might change gradually from within. On the other side, there are forces trying to prove them wrong, and one way to do so is by making the environment so threatening that no one dare stay active in the field. When I insisted on continuing to what I was doing, writing and promoting the things I believed in, I was arrested and thrown into jail.
After spending 55 days in prison, I decided it was time to pursue one of my dreams, which was studying journalism in the US. I knew that after what I had been through I would have a very hard time pursuing higher education and working in Iran. In 2005, I received Human Rights Watch’s annual Human Rights Defender Award for speaking out about what had happened during the time in prison, and I thought maybe it was best to stay out of the chaos for a little while. I also thought I could be of more help if I learned more and communicated what I learned to the next generation. Over the past few years I’ve led many journalism courses for my colleagues and for young aspiring journalists living in Iran.
This past April, Iran’s Fars news agency accused Iranian-American journalist Jason Rezaian of being ‘friends’ with journalists and activists living in exile, including you. How do you react to this?
During the time Jason was detained at Evin Prison my name came up a few times, once as a friend who sold information on sanctions with Jason’s collaboration. I don’t know how a journalist living in Brooklyn could have had access to such information, but the media wing of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), Jason’s captors, has a long history of going after those to stand up to them. From the early days of Jason’s arrest I was one of the people who consistently spoke out on his behalf. I wrote about it extensively and it made them really angry.
“We leave prison with a lot of anger, of a kind that might be destructive. To turn that explosive anger into something constructive, to put it into perspective and not take it personally, is an art.”
Jason was trapped in a political case. From the early months of his arrest, his captors suggested a prisoner swap as a way out for him. They never said what Jason’s crime was, or what he did wrong. It was clear that he was targeted because he holds an American passport. There was a lot of pressure from the US media on the Obama administration to use all means to secure Jason’s release, which meant the IRGC had even stronger leverage for a prisoner swap. The media wing of the IRGC brought bogus charges against Jason to convince the Americans he was in serious trouble and that unless they did a swap he might stay in prison for a long time. And the Obama Administration fell for it.
Jason spent around 18 months in prison, mainly because the prisoner swap talks took so long. Once the Americans started talking about a swap his fate became tied to the results of the negotiations. Other dual-nationality detainees, like Roxana Saberi and Maziar Bahari, were released much earlier because they went through a routine that couldn’t take longer than six months and public pressure really worked.
Overall it’s sad and cruel that a journalist like Jason, who supported Iranians’ efforts in the nuclear negotiations and wrote many stories on the harm caused to ordinary Iranians by those crippling sanctions, had to endure so much pain, isolation and psychological pressure. Just imagine how unbearable it must have been for him seeing his wife also in detention for two months. It shows how far the IRGC’s intelligence services will go to score political points.
Do you identify with Jason’s situation?
I very much identify with Jason. Now he is a member of the “Evin Club”. It used to be a more exclusive club, but its membership has increased. Those who spend some time in Evin feel a powerful bond. Unlike Jason I didn’t have a US passport, and I was not initially taken to Evin. I was taken first to a safe house, a building in the middle of the city used by intelligence to investigate cases they didn’t want anyone to know about. My name was nowhere to be found for three weeks. It was like I was kidnapped, along with a number of other journalists. In my case they subjected me to some inhumane and humiliating practices they do not normally use on prisoners, or at least on journalists. All were designed to extract a forced confession. After I was released, and before leaving Iran, I had a chance to speak out about what I went through. It’s much more effective to talk about such things when you are in Iran, because people know that in exposing your captors’ wrongdoings you’re risking your life. In my case, the circumstances turned out in a way that was very fortunate.
But regardless of the details, spending time in prison has an irreversible impact on one’s soul and mind, something Jason will have to deal with now as well. We leave prison with a lot of anger, of a kind that might be destructive. To turn that explosive anger into something constructive, to put it into perspective and not take it personally, is an art.
There is a corrupt judicial system in Iran that cannot protect Iranian citizens. There are criminal forces within the Iranian intelligence community who act like human hunters. That’s why I think our anger and frustration would be better channeled towards making the situation better, to being the voice of voiceless, and to making sure such actions become more and more costly for those who commit such crimes. That’s something that might bring peace to our minds.