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Iran: RFE/RL Journalist Reflects On Ordeal

Radio Farda broadcaster Parnaz Azima after her arrival in Washington on September 18 (RFE/RL) September 20, 2007 -- Radio Farda correspondent Parnaz Azima went to Iran in January to visit her ailing 94-year-old mother, who had fallen and broken her hip, and then suffered embolisms. But after Iranian authorities took her passport upon entry, Azima began what became an eight-month ordeal of being unable to leave again as she became one of four Iranian-Americans held against their will. Now, back in the United States, she reflects on what happened in this conversation with RFE/RL correspondent Mosaddegh Katouzian.

RFE/RL: Can you tell us a bit more about why you went to Iran and whether you suspected that you might face difficulties in doing so, given Tehran’s opposition to your employer, Radio Farda, the Persian-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the tensions in general between Washington and Tehran?

Nazy Azima: I was almost sure that I would be in trouble but I thought that, I mean, in the end I decided to go because otherwise maybe my mother wouldn't be alive. That is the truth. According to her doctors, they told me that they had no hope that she would recover and then suddenly at the hospital they found that she had changed and she told them, 'do you know that my daughter is here?' I think it was very important. Before I entered the country she had been in a coma but when I entered Iran she was in ICU (intensive care unit) for the third time because she had an embolism in her lung and also in her leg, and her doctor told me that she could face a very difficult situation.

RFE/RL: Once you were in Iran, how did you cope with the stress of suddenly no longer being in control of your own fate?

Azima: I was with my mom, and many people, as well as her doctor, told me that my presence there was very good for her health and for her recovery. But there were bad sides, as I was feeling that I am constantly under (security) control. But maybe it was not like that, I don't know. But I had that feeling, especially during the first two or three months. And then I tried to convince myself that I can’t go on like this, so I tried to just ignore things. And I found that others -- my friends and others that I knew in Iran -- were doing the same thing. They felt that maybe they are under control but they ignored it and they continued their ordinary life.

RFE/RL: Now that you are out, has the experience left you somewhat traumatized?

Azima: I don't want to say yes, but I think I am. Because I don't want to give in, or give up. My time in Iran, as I told you, I had good times but also I had bad times. For example, I didn't write anything, or I didn't keep anything in written form because I was all the time thinking that maybe they would again come to my house and make a house search. You never know what could happen. So that is why maybe I am traumatized.

While two are freed, three other Americans are still being held or are missing in Iran. Read about their cases here.



By RFE/RL President Jeffrey Gedmin
From "The Washington Post," September 19

Our reporter Parnaz Azima finally made it out of Iran yesterday. Iranian authorities, who had blocked her exit from the country since January, returned her passport two weeks ago but then proceeded to create a series of bureaucratic obstacles that prevented her from returning to her family and colleagues. Azima, who has U.S. and Iranian dual citizenship, works for Radio Farda, the Persian-language broadcast service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the congressionally funded broadcasters based in Prague.

Azima is one of Iran's best-known literary translators. She is famous for her translations of Ernest Hemingway's works. In January, she traveled to Tehran to visit her ailing 94-year-old mother and unwittingly became ensnared in a larger game being played by Iran's regime. Its aim is simple: to intimidate dissidents at home while pressuring the United States to refrain from supporting Iranian civil society.

Consider the way Tehran is attempting to put Radio Farda ("Farda" means tomorrow in Persian) in a bind. The Iranian government calls Farda a "counterrevolutionary radio station." In fact, Farda simply provides the Iranian people the news their government denies them. Our ratings remain high. The regime expends considerable effort trying to jam our signals and block access to our website. It's not hard to understand why.

This summer, Farda provided in-depth reporting on Iranian protests over the regime's gas-rationing policies. Farda relied on stringers around the country for dozens of interviews with experts, officials, and ordinary citizens. We provided first-rate, objective analysis from economists outside Iran. While there had been some opening in the media landscape under reformist President Mohammad Khatami, this process of liberalization was shut down by Mahmud Ahmadinejad after he became president in 2005.

Today, government censors tell editors how they may cover "sensitive" stories. One may, for example, report on Iran's debate with the world community over Tehran's nuclear program. One may not, however, use the words "bomb" or "United Nations Security Council." Not surprisingly, news-hungry Iranians turn to Farda and Voice of America for accurate news and information.

Recently, Farda covered the arrests of members of Tehran's bus drivers union. Our broadcasters reported on the expulsion of Baha'i students from Iranian universities. This summer we analyzed the crackdown on women's dress code violations. Last week we featured a sad, bizarre story on "dog prisons" in Iran (clerical rulers view pet dogs as out of step with Islam); some police officers are apparently chafing under pressure to arrest kids walking their pets in parks. These social fissures are important. In a free society, independent media would feel obliged to cover them.

Our broadcasters and correspondents are brave to do what they do. Intelligence officers in Tehran interrogate and threaten family members of Farda staffers. This summer, a young journalist working for us was summoned by an Iranian court to face charges of conducting "activities against national security." Authorities have threatened to take possession of his aunt's house (in exchange for "bail" he "owes") should he not appear for trial. Another colleague expressed concern to me about activities of the Iranian Embassy in Prague. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the Iranian regime moved hard against exiles, killing Iranian citizens in numerous European countries. Iran's foreign minister, when he was ambassador to Turkey in the late 1980s, was expelled when it was discovered that he was involved in nabbing Iranian dissidents. Such activities, unfortunately, do not seem to have stopped; Iranian authorities have discouraged Parnaz Azima from returning to Farda.

In this context, it can be disheartening to witness the endless bickering in Washington over how to help Iranian civil society. It is strange to hear the outcry from some who rail against the U.S. government's earmark of $75 million to aid the effort. That seems a paltry sum considering the importance and magnitude of the task at hand. Does the regime use this modest support as a pretext to crack down on dissidents? Of course it does. That's what dictators do. All of us are still waiting for those flawless and risk-free alternatives.

Our Farda team is hardly a monolith. Our roughly three dozen colleagues include social democrats, monarchists, passionate pro-Americans and ardent critics of the U.S. president and his policies. Our youngest employee is 23, the oldest 73. One thing unites this diverse group: the conviction that Iran deserves a decent, accountable government and a political system far freer and more tolerant than the current one. For some that sounds like the dirty words "regime change." That's a pity. I thought we all liked "soft power," especially after Iraq. Many of us think this work still represents America at its best.