Iran: Jailing the messengers

Editor’s Note: GlobalPost correspondent Iason Athanasiadis reported on the demonstrations in Iran. He was arrested in Tehran and held in jail for three weeks. In his first piece for GlobalPost since his release, Athanasiadis writes of fellow journalists who have been jailed.

ATHENS — I noticed the image as I scrolled down my Facebook page and it chilled me to the bone. Staring back at me from the screen was a younger version of me flanked by two Iranian photographer friends, in a personal photograph taken almost three years ago.

What business did it have on a friend’s thread illustrating a very public Persian-language article?

I squinted to make out the writing. The heading above the picture read: “Security Apparatus Conspiracy Against Journalists: Majid Saeedi Also Arrested.”

Majid Saeedi squats on the left of the picture. A gifted photographer, he shoots for Getty Images and has been on assignment in Afghanistan for Time Magazine. Within Iran, he is one of a few professionals so versatile as to have bridged the ideological divide among Iranian news agencies, working both for reformists and conservative media outlets such as the pro-Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Fars News.

Majid is not political but very passionate about photography. The opportunity to pound the pavement and capture unique moments that he would later edit and then whirl round the world on the Getty wire was what enabled him to work for such ideologically polarized extremes. His work humanizes a world that so many want to see demonized.

Majid does not see bearded or chador-clad masses, does not construct cliches for public consumption. He is in the business of individuals whose humanity he conjures brilliantly and kindly.

This extraordinary quality was on show during that short trip. In an out-of-the-way village such as Horaman-e Takht, we did what every 19th-century traveler would do: We stayed with the village doctor. He was the only non-Kurd in the village, an educated member of Iran’s Persian majority who was paying his due in westernmost Iran’s snowy wildernesses before moving to a more comfortable post. He and his wife took in three near-frozen travelers, fed and warmed us. Sensitive to Iran’s conservative society, Majid offered to take a series of portraits of the recently wed couple. It was an imaginative and eloquent expression of gratitude in place of a box of chocolates or any other hackneyed gift.

After dispelling their awkwardness with his jovial manner, Majid took the couple into another room for a half-hour photoshoot that left them stunned with the results.

“Is that really me?” the doctor’s wife gasped, looking ecstatically at the results on Majid’s laptop.

Majid could have acted like any other big-shot photographer from Tehran and the level of hospitality would have been the same or higher. But his deep humanity did not allow him to exploit Iran’s rigid social stratification. He behaved toward the doctor and his wife with deep humanity.

A few months later I bumped into him in Tehran.

“Any news of the doctor?” I asked.

“We’re in touch every day over IM chat,” he grinned.

In the photograph on my screen, taken on the back of a crowded pickup truck in the snowy passes close to the Iraqi border, Majid flashes his trademark grin as he shields us from the cascading snow with an umbrella. To my left, Ali Vahid peeks up under a Puma head-warmer. Slightly disoriented, I smile up from under my green hood.

It was the end of a viciously cold day in 2007 and we were in Horaman-e Takht to photograph a mystical Sufi ceremony in the local graveyard. Slipping on ice, we captured extraordinary moments of passion at the limits of religious devotion. When the picture was taken we were chilled, aching to the bone and headed to a local chaikhane to indulge in what photographers love most: savouring the end of a productive day in a warm space, sipping tea, smoking cigarettes and comparing shots.

Today, that photographic memento has become a register of jailbirds. All those depicted have done time in the Islamic Republic’s prisons.

Ali Vahid is now in Turkey where he fled after a year of harassment by Iran’s intelligence ministry. Along with his wife, he is waiting for the United Nations to process his political refugee claim.

Last month, I was arrested in Tehran and held in jail for three weeks in an effort to stifle my on-the-ground reporting and intimidate me.

Now the powers that be have decided that it is Majid’s turn to be strapped to the wheel of suffering.

Apparently he had been expecting it and had warned friends of his in earlier discussions that he was expecting to be taken away any day now.

On the night of his arrest, like every night for the past month since the disputed election that returned Iranian President Ahmadinejad to power with 63 percent of the vote, intelligence ministry employees knocked on the doors of houses and hauled off men and women judged to be threats to the state. Majid was arrested in front of his wife after a search of their apartment and the confiscation of several of his belongings.

Then he disappeared into the waiting maw of Evin, a prison I had vacated just the prior Sunday after becoming the first foreign journalist to be detained by the Islamic Republic. At the time, Intelligence Minister Gholamhossein Ejhei described me as being “disguised as a journalist and he was collecting information needed by the enemies.” The sum total of the evidence presented against me by my interrogators over three weeks of questioning were two surveillance pictures of me chatting with a British diplomat at a conference in Qom in 2005. They presented them to me, seemingly convinced that it would be enough to prompt a confession of guilt.

These are the kinds of unsubstantiated charges that panicked Islamic Republic officials are now presenting to the hundreds of detainees being funnelled into Iran’s sprawling prison bureaucracy.

Why was Majid taken away? Will he, like me, be exposed to baseless espionage allegations? Most likely not. He is so clearly a dedicated photographer driven toward excellence that he has been judged to pose a threat to the effective suppression of the social turmoil afflicting Iran.

The logic of the Iranian authorities is clear: If Majid’s cameras can be silenced, then the protesters thronging the streets of Tehran will be denied the oxygen of publicity that keeps their hopes alive. Majid’s images — both of pro-Ahmadinejad rallies and the opposition Mousavi movement — are so iconic as to beg the question of whether his arrest was anything more than an attempt to intimidate him into silence and inaction.

“They (the government) want to scare people at the moment, it’s a show of power,” said Vali, a friend of Majid speaking from Tehran. “They’ve carried out a coup and need to keep people crushed so that their act will be accepted.”

Perhaps like Ali, my other friend in that picture, Majid will be driven away from Iran into an uncertain exile. It will be Iran’s loss. He will add to the swelling numbers of educated Iranians abandoning the country at the rate of 150,000 a year (in normal times) as part of a meaningless brain-drain that can only hurt this long-suffering country.

Iran has become the world’s pre-eminent jailer of journalists with 41 media workers currently incarcerated, according to Paris-based watchdog Reporters Without Borders. At the current rate, Iran is “on the way to becoming the world’s most dangerous place for them to operate,” charged the organization on Sunday.

“You think images have no power?” Mana Kia, a friend and doctoral candidate at Harvard, asked me when I complained of the injustice of Majid’s arrest. “When the government refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of anything to protest, then Iranian journalists involved in spreading information and images about demonstrations and protests domestically and internationally become perceived as threats to the state.”

More GlobalPost dispatches on the plight of journalists in Iran:

Left in limbo in Iran

More GlobalPost dispatches by Iason Athanasiadis:

Tehran's wild nights of protest

Snapshots from Tehran's Revolution Square

Iran's elections: The view from the highway

More GlobalPost dispatches on the Iranian protests:

Essay: The flight from Tehran

Protester vs. protester in Iran

Revolution, Tiananmen, or something else?

Young, Iranian and ready for change