December 3, 2009

Post-Election Iran: On the Streets and In the Prisons

Washington, DC- As a prisoner of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry, Iason Athanasiadis witnessed a cultural struggle which he says is “by far the most important aspect of what is going on in Iran today if you want to understand it.”  Athanasiadis is a freelance journalist who was detained for three weeks in Tehran’s Evin Prison following the June presidential election in Iran.  He joined Washington Times Assistant Managing Editor Barbara Slavin for a discussion at the Woodrow Wilson Center titled “Prisons and Protests: Covering Iran After the Election.”

Within a day or two of the announcement of the election results, Athanasiadis said authorities outlawed investigative journalism, making reporting events on the ground a nearly impossible task. Athanasiadis did most of his reporting by running through the streets, contacting whomever he could while keeping a low profile to try to get a sense of the situation. When asked about how newspapers determined if information was reliable, Slavin spoke of having to rely oftentimes on nothing more than a “journalistic sense.” She said the situation was pieced together through extensive raw footage captured on cell phones, such as the death of Neda Agha Sultan, and attempts to fact-check through Athanasiadis.

At the time of his incarceration and even continuing today, Athanasiadis said there is a struggle between what he calls the “second and third generations” of post-revolution Iran.  Iran’s elders, many of whom served in the Revolutionary Guards, fought in the Iran-Iraq War and hold a more “black versus white, East versus West” view of the world, occupy most of the seats of power in Iran’s political system.  But there is a shift happening today as the next generation rises in influence, he says, since they are “more capable of seeing shades of grey.” Slavin noted how adept this third generation is in utilizing the Internet, especially Twitter and Facebook, as a sophisticated tool for their activities. 

While in prison, Athanasiadis said he was interrogated by “relatively educated, respectful men.”  Unlike Newsweek reporter Maziar Bahari, whose harrowing account of his experience in the same prison told of brutal beatings and harsh interrogations, Athanasiadis said he was mostly spared the violence and humiliation others experienced, on account of him being a foreigner of British and Greek descent.  Still, he felt many of his interrogators held certain views divorced from reality.

Athanasiadis briefly described his dismal solitary confinement in a dimly lit cell as the most unsettling period of his incarceration, due to the uncertainty of what awaited him and about what was going on outside the walls of Evin. His meeting with a Greek diplomat after weeks of solitary was a rare breath of fresh air. By contrast, his cell at a processing center where he was later transferred was intensely lit, surrounded by reflective walls, with the facility buzzing with hundreds of people brought in and out amidst the unrest outside, and the loud sounds of violent interrogations and beatings through the walls inside.

Following his release, Athanasiadis continued to report on the opposition movement and its activities, despite the risks that that entailed.  He was commissioned by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting as a freelance reporter for the Washington Times to cover the elections, as part of the Center’s goal to “fill in large media gaps.” He was also a consultant for the recent PBS Frontline documentary, A Death in Tehran.




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