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Iran: Radio Farda Journalist Covers Stories Tehran Tries To Suppress

  • Ron Synovitz --> Radio Farda's Roozbeh Bolhari (RFE/RL) July 12, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- An Iranian journalist who joined Radio Farda in Prague 18 months ago says he has more freedom to cover stories about Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's economic policies than journalists who remain in Iran.

It was about 6:30 in the evening on July 10 when Radio Farda broadcaster Roozbeh Bolhari received a call on his mobile phone in his Prague office.

The caller was in Tehran -- a labor activist from the Syndicate Workers of Tehran Bus Company who was concerned about the fate of the union's director, Mansur Osanlu.

"Ahmadinejad's government is putting more pressure on Iranian media to prevent them from covering the economic problems in Iran, or even from covering strikes by workers there," Bolhari says.

Less than an hour earlier, the caller explained, Osanlu had been abducted from a public bus less than 200 meters from his home. The abductors were four armed men in plainclothes who claimed they were police officers arresting a thief.

Osanlu pleaded for help from other passengers, shouting out his name and his role as the leader of a genuinely independent trade union -- a labor organization that the Iranian government refuses to recognize. Four witnesses on the bus reported the abduction to police and to Osanlu's family.

Bolhari knew Osanlu from his work covering economic issues in Iran. He quickly confirmed the abduction with phone calls to Osanlu's wife and other members of the independent trade union.

Iranian police were treating the case as a "criminal" investigation -- a classification that Bolhari says could allow them to later deny any government involvement.

Soon, Radio Farda's story was being broadcast into Iran -- one of the first reports by any of the world's media about the case.

Experienced Eye

The 44-year-old Bolhari has been working at Radio Farda's Prague offices for the past 18 months.

Before that, he worked for 17 years as a journalist inside Iran -- including work for the official "Iran" newspaper under reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), and as an economic correspondent and international news editor for about a dozen reformist newspapers that all were shut down by Iran's conservative judiciary.

Bolhari says government intimidation and censorship against journalists in Iran makes it harder to report on the country's economic problems from inside the country than from abroad. He says that's because President Ahmadinejad's administration suppresses reports about perceived failures of economic policy.

"This is a big problem in Iran," Bolhari explains. "Thousands of workers have been dismissed in recent years, and they also have been fired from their jobs because of the economic crisis in Iran and the economic policies of Ahmadinejad's government."

"Ahmadinejad's government is putting more pressure on Iranian media to prevent them from covering the economic problems in Iran, or even from covering strikes by workers there," Bolhari says. "The government is suppressing these stories, filtering information and blocking information altogether."

Official Fear?

Bolhari says that as a broadcaster with Radio Farda, he has been able to report on several recent strikes in Iran that united thousands of workers. Authorities in Tehran had prevented stories about the stoppages from being published or broadcast by Iranian-based media.

"Ahmadinejad's government is afraid of stories about thousands of striking Iranian workers," Bolhari says. "Ahmadinejad's government knows very well that such stories will encourage more strikes. And it will be hard to punish demonstrators when their numbers grow in the thousands."

"They are afraid that ordinary workers are being transformed into political activists because of the difficult economic situation," Bolhari says. "When a worker doesn't have enough money or food for their family, he or she will blame the government's policies. And the problems will be transformed from an economic crisis to a political crisis that threatens the stability of the government itself."

Bolhari says he thinks the abduction of Osanlu also is an example of Ahmadinejad's government using intimidation and harassment to prevent ordinary Iranians from going into the streets to protest their worsening economic situation.

In the past, the Iranian government has detained hundreds of drivers from Osanlu's union to prevent them from carrying out planned strikes. Osanlu also has been imprisoned three times for his role as a leader of an independent union.

Osanlu also told Bolhari in interviews that he has faced beatings and harassment from Iranian security agents because of his work.

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