‘In our rush to leave we barely got a chance to say goodbye.’

“Caitriona Palmer, who has been reporting from Iran for The Irish Times on a part-time basis, is being forced to leave the country. She and her husband, Dan De Luce, who writes for The Guardian of London, went to Bam without official permission, to report on the effects of the recent earthquake. Subsequently, the authorities revoked Mr De Luce’s residence visa and press accreditation. Despite appeals, including from The Irish Times, he has to leave for at least three months, and Ms Palmer with him. Ms Palmer, a Dubliner, has also reported for RT�.”– The Irish Times

I’m sitting in Brooklyn with a beaded beer, reading newspaper articles about my best friends. Caitriona sent me a rushed email when the call came through from the ministry last week. They’d been given two days to leave Tehran, but couldn’t get a flight to London until Thursday–five days out. That delay made me frantic. They were the first foreign journalists to be expelled from Iran since 1989, and last year, Zahra Khazemi, a Canadian-Iranian journalist, was beaten to death in custody in Tehran. Caitriona is tough bird–in early pregnancy she spent fourteen hours a day hauling rubble at the site of the Bam earthquake–but I couldn’t settle until I knew they were out.

They arrived safely in London on Thursday. To my great delight, they’re now planning a move to DC. I am trying to negotiate Brooklyn visitation rights, so that I can fully interfere in the gestation of their sprog, who is due to show up in December. Cait and I haven’t shared a continent in nearly a decade, and though I wish it hadn’t happened quite this way, I’m tempted to send a thank-you strippergram to the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture.

There were a bare dozen foreign journalists living in Iran. Now there are ten. It’s an unusual process to eject reporters, and doesn’t generally reflect well on a country. Very few states demand that visiting (not resident) reporters have special visas. Cuba, Syria, Iran, and North Korea are among them. The United States, you may be surprised to learn, is another. The latest antics of the INS(Immigration and Naturalization Services), or whatever they call themselves in newspeak, make a good counterpoint to outrage at Dan and Caitriona’s experience. Mr. Ashcroft’s underlings have recently taken to handcuffing, jailing, and deporting European journalists who visit to explain this country to readers at home. The parallels between the following two excerpts make me want to choke on my freedom fries:

Elena Lappin, a freelance journalist from the United Kingdom (who has written for Slate), was stopped at Los Angeles International Airport, subjected to a body search, handcuffed, frog-marched through the airport, and then held in a cell at a detention center overnight-all because she dared travel to the United States without a special journalist visa…Since when is the U.S. government in the business of accrediting journalists-foreign or domestic? What possible journalistic standards must be met in order to prove to the INS that one is enough of a journalist to merit a press visa? The list of enumerated requirements would make it impossible for a reporter from an allied country to cover a breaking story in a timely way. Reporters must now provide a letter from their employer detailing their assignment and place their hope in the broad discretion afforded immigration authorities. Of course, freelancers just looking for a story without a contract in their pocket are presumably out of luck, too. Unless, of course, they elect to lie and call themselves tourists with super-big cameras. The state cannot be in the business of acting as arbiter of who’s allowed to come and write about America.

–Taken from “Why is the US terrorizing British reporters?”, by Dahlia Lithwick in _Slate_

And Caitriona on Tehran:

By forcing foreign journalists to apply for permission to conduct interviews or travel around the country, the authorities try to restrict the flow of information coming out of Iran. By keeping the rules vague and unwritten, the authorities can at any time choose to penalise a particular journalist in an arbitrary manner….[T]he generosity and friendliness of the Iranian people is so far removed from the repressive nature of the Iranian regime. …[O]rdinary Iranians are good, honest, hardworking people who are embarrassed by their government and the negative image it receives around the world.

By expelling and restricting foreign correspondents, the clerical establishment in Iran is playing a counter-productive game. Their paranoia is preventing the world from appreciating the true nature of Iranian society. It is not a nation of terrorists or militants. Perhaps if more foreign journalists were allowed to work in Iran, the country’s image might improve.

FULL TEXT OF CAITRIONA’S ARTICLE

IRAN: Caitriona Palmer, who has been reporting from Tehran for _The Irish Times_, describes how she and her journalist husband were forced this week to leave Iran. Last week in Tehran, the telephone in our small apartment rang. On the line was a secretary from the ministry of Islamic guidance and culture, our ‘minders’ in Iran. The secretary seemed nervous and overly apologetic for calling. The news wasn’t good, she said.

“You have a week to leave the country,” she told my husband, Dan De Luce, correspondent in Iran for the Guardian. “Your visa has been denied for three months. There is nothing further I can do. I’m very, very sorry.”

So were we. Iran had been our home for the past year and a half. We had a cosy apartment overlooking the Alborz mountains, a large group of friends and a great enthusiasm to tell the outside world about the real Islamic Republic.

As two of just a dozen resident foreign correspondents living in Iran we were aware that we occupied privileged positions in a country that was deeply suspicious of the foreign press.

Despite our complaints about Tehran’s pollution and its choking traffic congestion, Iran still felt like home. And now the Iranian government was telling us that we weren’t welcome anymore.

A recent article by Dan about the reconstruction efforts in the city of Bam, devastated by an earthquake on the December 26th last year, seemed to be the cause of our problems.

In late March, Dan and I had travelled to Bam to volunteer for an Iranian charity that was providing rehabilitative care to earthquake victims. It was the Iranian new-year period and we had a week off. We’d travelled to Bam six weeks earlier to cover Prince Charles’s visit and had been moved by the enormity of the human suffering there. We were eager to return to help out and curious to see how the reconstruction efforts were progressing.

As is customary, we applied to the authorities for permission to travel to Bam as journalists and volunteers. Word came back that we could volunteer but not report. This seemed strange. In a city that had been the focus of so much recent international attention and foreign aid, it was odd that the foreign press were not welcome.

But once in Bam, it became clear why the Iranian government was so keen to keep foreign journalists away. More than three months after the earthquake, the city remained a mass of devastation and confusion. Over 70,000 homeless were still living in appalling conditions in synthetic tents by the road. Stinking fly infested roadside latrines and showers were the only means of available sanitation.

Relief workers and earthquake survivors told us that the reconstruction efforts were plagued by mismanagement and alleged corruption. Survivors complained that they were not seeing the fruits of the massive influx of foreign aid and that there was too much bureaucracy and red tape standing in the way.

“We know that other countries have helped,” said one 45-year old woman who lost her husband and young daughter in the quake. “But there is no money coming to us.”

And it wasn’t just the Bam residents who were complaining about mismanagement. Government agencies were trading accusations. A week before we visited Bam, the Iranian Red Crescent Society alleged that some $10 million of foreign aid had yet to be fully accounted for.

Wherever we went in Bam, angry residents approached us demanding that we report about the slow pace of reconstruction, the lack of temporary housing, and the deafening silence from the Iranian government. Frustration at the slow pace of reconstruction was palpable on every street.

Just a few weeks before our visit, people took to the streets, burning cars and banks and beating up the governor general. An international relief worker told us that several Bam residents were shot in the ensuing riots. But barely a word leaked out in the foreign or domestic press.

Back in Tehran, perturbed and depressed by what we’d seen, we felt we had to write stories about the situation in Bam, even without official permission. And so the fateful Guardian piece was published on April 2nd while I filed reports for RT�.

By expelling Dan for reporting about Bam, the Iranian authorities have simply reinforced suspicions about mismanagement of the aid effort and the regime’s commitment to freedom of expression.

By forcing foreign journalists to apply for permission to conduct interviews or travel around the country, the authorities try to restrict the flow of information coming out of Iran. By keeping the rules vague and unwritten, the authorities can at any time choose to penalise a particular journalist in an arbitrary manner.

By allowing the intelligence services routinely to interrogate and intimidate the interpreters who work for foreign correspondents, the regime seeks to discourage journalistic inquiry. By forcing foreign correspondents to renew their visas every three months, the regime retains the right to expel any correspondent that it believes is pushing the envelope.

But foreign correspondents are lucky. We just get expelled. Last July, Zahra Khazemi, an Iranian photographer who held a Canadian passport, was beaten to death while in custody in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. According to Reporters San Frontiers, there are more journalists in jail in Iran than in any other Middle Eastern country. On the day that we left Iran, another two Iranian journalists were arrested and yet another newspaper shut down.

In our rush to leave Iran, we barely got a chance to say goodbye to our Iranian friends. And that is our deepest regret. Those who heard the news were deeply embarrassed and ashamed to hear of Dan’s expulsion. One Iranian friend broke down in tears as she explained her powerlessness in challenging the clerical establishment.

The Iran Air steward on our flight to London was so worried that our view of Iran would be ruined forever that he fed us a constant stream of snacks and drinks throughout the journey. “I didn’t want your last Iranian experience to be a negative one,” he explained at the end of the flight.

And his plan worked. For his kindness, and that of ordinary Iranians, remains our most enduring memory of Iran. That the generosity and friendliness of the Iranian people is so far removed from the repressive nature of the Iranian regime. That ordinary Iranians are good, honest, hardworking people who are embarrassed by their government and the negative image it receives around the world.

So by expelling and restricting foreign correspondents, the clerical establishment in Iran is playing a counter-productive game. Their paranoia is preventing the world from appreciating the true nature of Iranian society. It is not a nation of terrorists or militants. Perhaps if more foreign journalists were allowed to work in Iran, the country’s image might improve.

Copyright _The Irish Times_ 2004

2 thoughts on “‘In our rush to leave we barely got a chance to say goodbye.’”

  1. I think the INS is now called the Dept of Motherland Security. I’ve heard numerous incidents of visitors being arrested and detained for days before deportation recently.

    In terms of my own experience, I just got fingerprinted and my photo taken as I arrived at LAX yesterday. Not nice.

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  2. I posted that article – “Why is the US terrorizing British reporters?”, by Dahlia Lithwick in Slate – in my own blog a couple of weeks ago and it kicked off a nice debate amongst some of the more narrow minded bloggers out there. I have grave reservations about the prospects of my getting into the U.S next time I’m destined for her shores, especially given my status as a freelance.

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