Iran’s Jila Baniyaghoob on journalism, prison and Rouhani
Iranian journalist and activist says freedom of speech and the press have not improved one iota under the new administration
Tehran Bureau correspondent
Sept. 19, 2014
Jila Baniyaghoob, a prominent Iranian journalist and women’s rights activist, has a charisma that comes through even on an online chat. In fact, she seems untainted by the many hardships she and her husband,Bahman Ahmadi Amouei, also a journalist, have endured to practice their profession in Iran. Soon after the June 2009 presidential election, they were both arrested for their critical reporting of the government. She was released on bail two months later. But because of pressure from the intelligence forces, a revolutionary court banned her from journalism for an unprecedented 30 years. Ahmadi Amouei is close to serving out his five-and-half year term.
What was your goal in writing this book?
I’m a journalist, so I’m constantly writing about what I hear and see. It was the same when I was in prison; every time I went back inside I paid extra close attention to all that was happening around me so that I could work it into a narrative afterwards. The time I went to prison in 1996 was no different. Additionally, I’ve always harbored a great deal of interest in the Iranian women’s movement and have dedicated a part of myself to it. So it’s natural for me to want to chronicle the experiences of women’s rights activists in prison, which constitute one of the major areas of the movement in the past few decades.
Have women’s lives changed since your book was published?
Unfortunately not; in fact they are still more or less as I described them in the book. Women still suffer from systemic legal persecution and are prohibited from voicing their grievances by the state security apparatus.
Why do certain legal protections for prisoners in Iran, such as the right not to be blindfolded, not seem to APPLY in practice?
As I explain in the BOOK, it is my personal experience that most of the intelligence officers, who maintain a strong presence in Iran’s prisons and detention facilities, flout these laws and the regulations of the prisons themselves. I would often protest the use of blindfold to my interrogators, and their response would frequently be to put me in solitary confinement. In the end they would always say that they know the law but that it simply doesn’t APPLY to them. They go by their own laws.
Who are the interrogators and what is their job?
According to the law, the interrogators work under the oversight of the judiciary and procure information pertinent to the case in order to facilitate issuing verdicts. But in Iran the interrogators enjoy a far greater DEGREE of power; they’re supervised by the ministry of information and the revolutionary guards and sometimes they even hold sway over the judges themselves. They can even request a specific sentence for defendants for whom they have artificially engineered a case and evidence. For example, they will say, “This one deserves five years,” and more often than not the judges fear the influence of the intelligence officers to the extent that they issue those very sentences. It’s common for an interrogator to tell a political prisoner to expect a certain sentence and then for the judge to issue precisely that sentence.
How would you prepare yourself for interrogation?
In the book I explain that there was no specific time for interrogating prisoners; they would come for us at seemingly random times and sometimes even in the middle of the night. But I would try to resist giving in as much as possible since their methods were illegal.
In your opinion, why do the women interrogators in prison seem to have no regard for women’s rights?
The ones whom I said had no regard for women’s rights were actually prison guards. I think there are two reasons for this: One is that they have been ordered not to speak to us. The second might be that they themselves are worried that, should they speak to us, they might become conflicted about what they are involved in. In all likelihood this is why they have been ordered not to communicate with us. Their superiors are aware of this danger and have taken steps to stop our ideas from taking hold.
Throughout the BOOK, you and your fellow prisoners chanted and sang protest songs to pass the time. What was significant about these songs and chants? How did the prison guards react to this?
We needed a way to pass the time and lift our spirits. Our voices reached other prisoners, who learned who we were and why we were there. Our chants and songs also reached the prison guards and prison officials, and this became a way of voicing our protest.
Why do you think the interrogators accuse journalists of spying for foreign governments? Why has this stigma against journalists come into being?
Some of them really are deluded enough to believe this, but some also know it’s false, even as they say it. It’s part of their tactics for getting forced confessions out of people to get the court cases fixed and lock up dissidents for long periods.
Why did they imprison you for a year?
I was imprisoned for a year and forbidden from practicing journalism for 30 years following the events of 2009. I had been in prison for shorter periods before that – from a week to two months at a time. I was accused of reporting and writing stories that were critical of the government. That they forbade me from engaging in my profession was a grave injustice.
How do you manage to speak to a member of the foreign press?
Sometimes after an interview we get a warning from security officials. Sometimes we’re summoned for it. Sometimes they file new charges against us. It’s because of these pressures that you don’t hear from me and my colleagues for some time. Sometimes we break our silence. In spite of the threats, we speak out so others hear our protest.
President Hassan Rouhani is preparing to head to New York next week for the UN General Assembly. Have things improved inside the country?
Nothing has changed. Freedom of speech and the press are no better than before. My husband and I are a good example. I’m still banned from writing. I’m still banned even though Rouhani said in a television interview here that the issue has been resolved. He said no one in the country is banned from writing. That night I wrote something to Rouhani on my Facebook page: ‘Mr President, I, Jila Baniyaghoob, have been tried by the revolutionary court and banned from writing and journalism for 30 years. I remain banned.’ My post was shared widely and quoted by the press.
I still never got an answer.