Jila Baniyaghoob’s sentence of one year in prison and a 30-year ban on working as a journalist has recently been confirmed at the Tehran Province’s Court of Appeal Bench 54.
In recent years, this independent journalist has won several international journalism awards including the Courage in Journalism Award (by the International Women’s Media Foundation), the International Freedom of Expression award (by the Canadian Journalists Organization), and the Best Weblog award (by Reporters Without Borders).
In an open letter to the Tehran Prosecutor, Abbas Ja’fari-Dowlatabadi, Jila Baniyaghoob has called on him to take up the case of independent journalists and dissident citizens from time to time and to protest against the sentence imposed on her.
Here’s the full text of Jila’s letter, published on her weblog, We are Journalists, http://www.zhila.org/spip.php , and also carried by Mr Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s online journal, Kaleme, http://www.kaleme.com/1389/08/10/klm-36979.
Tehran Prosecutor, Mr Jafari-Dowlatabadi,
Unlike you, I have not studied law, but I do know about the law at the general level that any citizen should know, and I know that prosecutors are not there only to prosecute journalists or other citizens, but also to prosecute the government when it violates citizens’ rights.
I know that these days you associate mostly with people who approve of you, your attitude and your actions. In such conditions, criticisms of a journalist like me may not have much effect. Without much hope for impressing you and achieving a result, I am writing to you merely to say: “Mr Prosecutor, please prosecute for us too, from time to time.”
For several years, your esteemed colleagues have deprived us, professional journalists, from doing our work. This has given me a new opportunity to review Iran’s recent history. These days, I have been reading the memoirs of political prisoners under the Shah’s regime. What I find most amazing is that even the actions of the lower ranking officers and wardens are recorded in these memoirs. Sometimes, a decade after the event, a prisoner praises a warden for a good act in a far away prison, or tells the future generation, namely us, about the bad behaviour of a warden at Evin or Qasr prisons. It is therefore unlikely that history will fail to record the actions of the Tehran Prosecutor.
During the past few months, I have met you several times and every time you treated me well; listened to me patiently; and told me the sentence of a thirty-year ban on me working as a journalist imposed by Judge Pir-Abbasi is strange; that it does not conform to legal criteria; and that it will certainly be revoked by the court of appeal.
I see no reason why I, a journalist, should be telling you, a doctoral student of law, that nowhere in Iran’s penal system is it accepted to impose a punishment that would lead to defendant’s permanent or long-term deprivation from even one ‘social right’. I see no reason to argue that such a sentence does not even fit in with the Islamic Republic’s own legal standards, because I am sure that you know this better than me.
Many of your colleagues may not understand me, but you might, when I say that ‘I don’t live through newspapers, but through journalism.’ At any rate, I am not worried about my professional future, because I know full well that the honorable judge who has issues this sentence has no idea of journalism in the past or now; nor any idea of the global changes in journalism; nor, most importantly, any idea that in today’s world, no one can make a decision about a person’s professional future for the next five, ten or thirty years.
How could such judges know what journalism will be like five, ten or twenty years from now? Judges who issue such sentences might not even remember that only a few decades ago there was a law in Iran which required any citizen who wanted to buy a fax machine to obtain a permit first; or that the citizens of this country dreamed of owning video players. Those who passed and enforced such laws could not imagine that one day instead of using the fax machine, citizens could easily send emails to anywhere in the world; receive the signals of hundreds of radio and television stations through their small digital receivers; and that their ‘cyber army’ that spends millions of dollars to jam signals and block internet sites would be defeated by children and young people who produce a new anti-filter software every day.
In a few years’ time, if you and I are still around, I shall remind you that just as some judges and statesmen a decade ago had no idea of satellite signals or the world of the internet, their successors today have no idea of the future of journalism.
Merely to record a fact for history, I shall review for you the sentence issued by the Revolutionary Court Bench 26, so that should one day a student of law or history begin researching the era of your service as prosecutor, he or she will see how ‘legal’ such sentences have been.
Declaring his intention of proving that I had not worked as a journalist, but as a subversive element in the full sense of the term, Judge Pir-Abbasi says in the first paragraph of his sentence: “Did the Western governments pay attention to her (Jila Baniyaghoob) and give her scholarships and invite her to visit their countries for the sake of journalism? Has the accused engaged only in journalism? Would the colonialist Western world spend money aimlessly? What is the goal for which the Western world has been spending money? How did it recognize that Ms Baniyaghoob would help the West approach that goal?’
I shall ignore the ‘legal’ tone of this verdict and deal only with its content. A scholarship offered to me by a Western university has been cited as evidence my guilt. Although the granting of scholarships by universities across the world is not considered a crime, and every year many Iranian students, experts, university professors and even people affiliated with the Iranian government benefit from such scholarships, I have not accepted any scholarship from any university and have stated this in all the interrogations. All the judge has to say is that a couple of European universities have offered scholarships to me, which of course I have not accepted. Is that a crime?
Invitations to visit Western countries, extended to me by those countries, have also been cited as evidence of guilt. I was invited by the foreign ministries of Japan and France to visit those countries and the visits resulted in articles about the lives of people, especially women, in those countries in the daily Yase- Now. None of those visits had a political purpose and I did not have any political activities during those visits.
Every year, the French Foreign Ministry invites journalists from across the world, including Iran, for short visits to France. It is interesting to note that not only reformist Iranian journalists, but also journalists working for state-owned and even fundamentalist newspapers have received such invitations, which they have accepted.
Several years ago, the Japanese Foreign Ministry invited me for a visit to that country on the basis of a protocol. According to that protocol, the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran invited six Japanese women to visit Iran, and the government of Japan invited six Iranian women to visit Japan. I was one of the six, along with five others: a film director, a photographer, a sculptor, an actress and a musician. How could a visit by six active Iranian women be described as serving the interests of Arrogance [an official term for imperialism]? As I have said in my articles about the visit to Japan in Yas-e Naw, Japanese women repeatedly told us, “We could not believe that Iranian women can work and progress in spite of the hijab.” In fact, in as much as it was in their power, these women acted as Iran’s cultural ambassadors and broke down the stereotypical images of Iranian women. Furthermore, such visits are common in the context of cultural relations among countries.
Although it is not illegal to visit Western countries and write reports about the West, most of my visits have not been to the West, but to countries in the Middle East and the region, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon during the wars in those countries and I have written hundreds of reports about the sufferings of the people of Afghanistan and Iraq during war and occupation for newspapers including Nowrouz, Yase-Now, Hahmshahri, Vaqaye’-e Ettefaqieh and Sarmayeh which could be accessed in a simple search of the internet by the judges or the specialists at the Ministry of Intelligence.
If the interrogators and judges do not consider travelling to Western countries to be in line with the profession of journalism, maybe travelling to Lebanon is. But why then does the honourable judge ignore this in my case? I was one of the first Iranian journalists to report on the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. These reports were published in the dailies Nowrouz and Yas-e Now.
In the second paragraph of the verdict which led to my sentence of one year in prison and a thirty-year ban on working as a journalist , the honourable Judge Pir-Abbasi says: ‘Did Jila Baniyaghoob’s cooperation with newspapers that have been banned by courts of law speak of performing one’s duty as a journalist? Yes, so it does in a view that regards confrontation with the Islamic government as the correct path.’
Once again, I shall ignore the ‘legal’ tone of this judicial verdict and shall only point out that I used to work with newspapers that were being published with the government’s permission, and that basically, it is not possible to work with a newspaper that has stopped publishing. Was I meant to pass judgment on the newspapers even before they had been accused of any wrongdoing, and stop working with them while they were being published with the government’s permission, in anticipation of their closure? Is so, why did the government give permission to those newspapers?
I would like to draw your attention to another paragraph of the historical verdict issued by the presiding judge of the Revolutionary Court Bench 26: ‘Is it among a journalist’s duties to prepare an article under the title “The Majlis of Harems and Harem-dwellers” and announce the lie that “50 per cent of the MPs in the 8th Majlis have two wives”? First of all, the country’s laws allow polygamy. Secondly, that article has predicted that the number of wives would rise to 40. This is nothing more than destroying the image of the Majlis in the minds of the public.’
Mr Prosecutor, it might interest you to know that the article, “The Majlis of Harems and Harem-dwellers”, is not mine at all, and I have said so repeatedly during interrogations. The specialist in charge of my case has produced an article that I did not write as evidence proving my guilt. This article was written by Ms Shokouh Mirzadegi [an Iranian writer living in the US], who has mentioned my name in it. I have said repeatedly that I did not write the article and that I cannot prevent others from naming me in their articles.
However, in order to add to the weight of the file, the interrogator has added to it as evidence an article that I have neither written nor published on my website, without giving any reason, and the judge has issued a verdict on the same basis. It appears that the reason why this article has found its way into my case file is that during an internet search, the specialist printed any article which included my name and added it the file, presuming that I must have had a role in the production of any piece of writing that mentions my name. I wish the interrogators knew a little bit more about science in today’s world, including the world of the internet. Mr Prosecutor, please clarify for me only this one point: why has an article that is not mine been used as evidence against me?
The other article mentioned by Judge Pir-Abbasi is not mine either, but was written by Ms Fakhrosadad Mohtashamipour, and I re-published it on my weblog, quoting hers. The story said fifty members of the 8th Majlis had two wives, not 50 per cent of them. I said this to the honourable interrogator repeatedly, but do not know whether he could not understand that 50 is different from 50%, or he did not want to understand.
Judge Pir-Abbasi’s verdict has other paragraphs also, based on my reports of meetings and rallies held by Ahmadinejad’s rivals [for Iran’s presidency], including the Green Human Chain from the Railways Square [in south Tehran] to Tajrish Square [in the north], and my reports of several protest meetings after the controversial June 2009 election. The judge has considered my reports as evidence that I have insulted the President and has issued a verdict on that basis. On the other hand, the same articles have been sent to the Press Court in a separate file, so that I would be prosecuted there also on charges of having insulted the President.
I would like to ask you again, Mr Prosecutor, to prosecute for us too from time to time. Please protest against this unfair sentence. In the words of the first prosecutor of the Revolutionary Court, ‘these posts are not war booty, but tests for the Day of Resurrection.’ Please let people in the years to come describe you as a prosecutor who also prosecuted for the people from time to time, for independent journalists and dissident citizens.
‘Before you, like you, there were many
‘Who wrote in wind, on cobwebs
‘”May this auspicious state last forever.”’
(poem by Mohammad-Reza Shafi’i-Kadkani)
2 November 2010
translated by Hossein Shahidi