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Human rights violations in Iran: Causes and Modalities

Message to Tehran: Let our truth-teller go

Jacki Lyden and Azar Nafisi
The Globe and Mail
July 14, 2009
Appeal/Urgent Action

The guardians of Iran cannot tolerate curiosity. Is that why Canadian-Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari is in jail?

When we got the news about our friend, documentary filmmaker Maziar Bahari, there was the feeling it couldn't be real. Yet, it's happening again: A truth-teller becomes the pawn of a totalitarian regime. Only this time, it's more calculated, and the stakes are higher in Iran.

Mr. Bahari, a 42-year-old Canadian journalist working for Newsweek in Tehran, is a talented, curious and compassionate person. A dual citizen, he is being held exactly because he possesses those qualities. No one knows quite what the government has in store for him. He is a door opener on Iran, and has worked for a huge array of news agencies and independent NGOs over the years - the way documentary people do.

He's made films about artists, veterans, HIV-positive people in Iran seeking love, people in Iraq seeking normal lives - this is not a polemical filmmaker. He's more dangerous than that. What he really is a third eye, a man with a camera. And that act of wielding a camera has become even more reprehensible than that of possessing a weapon in Iran - more dangerous than being a political opponent.

On June 21, at 7 a.m., the Iranian government arrested him at his mother's home. He exists now in a shadow world. Trumped up charges are likely to follow, perhaps even the nightmare of a Kafkaesque show trial. It's like one of his own films. Maziar's work has always been about people in rough circumstances, thwarted by governments - people on the wrong side of bad times and worse ideas.

Making documentaries is not like covering breaking news, and it takes empathy to talk to people for a long time. Maziar is the consummate independent. But what he's waded into now is the deepest, darkest hole of all: He is to be made out to be something he is not. He is to be used.

Last month, Maziar was part of a group of 131 filmmakers who signed a petition defending their right to exist after protests grew in the streets in the wake of Iran's disputed June 12 election. They wrote: “We are documentary filmmakers. Our work is to discover and tell the truth. Truth can only be found when all aspects of reality are told. In the course of recent events in our country, our national media, by deliberately hiding realities, is making it impossible for the public to access the truth.”

How do you create the person who, growing up under repressive circumstances or regimes, is somehow able to withstand and bear witness? And why would that person be so dangerous?

The answer is that the guardians of Iran cannot tolerate curiosity and empathy, a desire to know, to understand. Desperate to cover its sins - or certainly its errors - those with qualities that encourage thinking must become enemies. We have seen this time and again. In the late 1990s, a number of intellectuals, including a scholar of ancient Persian texts, were killed. In recent years, the Islamic Republic has resorted to show trials.

Maziar has already been made to pay for the regime's failings. His forced confession, on June 30, was agonizing to see. The Stalinist-style public confession that the regime demands is akin to a form of death sentence: The truth-teller must apologize for the truth and document something that doesn't exist. It violates the truth-teller's conscience, and that's why it violates the conscience of all thinking people.

Maziar Bahari is a graduate of Montreal's Concordia film school and a Canadian citizen. Whatever Canada's laws may say, whatever its diplomats may posit, it is morally obligated to do all it can to seek his release.

The Obama administration, too, should shout out - so should all democratic governments, especially those with a free press that sends reporters to Iran. Maziar is the only journalist working for a Western news agency now in detention.

Maziar is also a father-to-be, the son of an elderly mother who is recently bereaved, a sorely missed friend. It behooves all of us to perform one task in relieving the darkness in which he is now shrouded. That way, the next time a truth-teller is detained in Iran or anywhere else, the scorn of the international community penetrates inside the furthest regions of totalitarian borders: to the mind, where people are thinking.

Maziar left word that, if he were to be arrested, he wanted the world to know. And that is one comfort: No one should be forced to turn their work into lies. If you believe that people who tell the truth can make a difference, then you believe in the work Iran now wants to hide. Don't let that happen. Demand stories, not propaganda. We gain not only Maziar's release, but our common humanity. Because we are people, not pawns.