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Iran: Two Western Journalists Leave, Criticizing Reformers

The hurried departure of two Western correspondents from Iran last weekend surprised many observers because the husband-and-wife team says they were threatened not by hard-liners but by reformers. At issue is an interview the two journalists obtained from jailed reformist leader Akbar Ganji. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at some of the accusations and counter-accusations involved in the affair.

Prague, 7 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Geneive Abdo and her husband Jonathan Lyons are familiar names to readers who follow news about Iran in the Western press.

Abdo wrote regularly for the U.S.-owned "International Herald Tribune" and Britain's "Guardian" newspaper, while Lyons headed the Tehran bureau for the Reuters news agency. Both had proven themselves adept at following the up-and-down progress of Iran's power struggle between conservatives and reformers -- a struggle in which hard-liners have suppressed liberal papers and jailed many reformist journalists and activists.

So it came as no surprise to many newspaper readers late last month when Abdo and Lyons obtained an exclusive interview from Iran's best-known investigative journalist, Akbar Ganji, only a week after he was sentenced to 10 years in jail.

The pair managed to slip questions to Ganji -- and to three other reformists sharing his cell in Tehran's Evin prison -- through one of the cellmate's visiting relatives. In response, they obtained written answers. They then prepared articles which appeared on the Reuters news wire and in the "Guardian" and "International Herald Tribune."

Ganji was a particularly desirable interview because his jailing has been widely condemned both inside and outside Iran as an effort by hard-liners to silence one of the country's boldest liberal voices.

Last month, Ganji was sentenced to jail -- along with other reformers who had attended a controversial conference in Berlin last year, where members of Iranian exile groups rudely demonstrated against Islamic values. But most of Ganji's punishment is attributable to his having investigated a string of assassinations of dissidents over the past 10 years. He says his evidence shows the killings were ordered by very highly placed hard-line officials, some of them still in power.

Abdo and Lyons quoted Ganji as saying about the political situation in Iran that "future events may act as a detonator for an explosion." They also cited him as saying that "slowly, step by step, fascist interpretations of religion will lead to terrorist acts and other crimes which take place for the sole aim of shedding blood and demanding bloodshed in revenge."

Abdo introduced those quotes by writing in the "International Herald Tribune" that Ganji "predicted that if the conservatives continued their strategy of obtaining power by force, violence would be the only means for ending their monopoly on power."

Lyons introduced his Reuters report on the interview by writing that Ganji "warned [of] a political explosion unless conservatives eased pressure on the reform movement."

Not long after both articles were published, there was indeed an explosion. It was of the kind that can often accompany a journalist conveying an interviewee's remarks on delicate subjects. Ganji's relatives charged that the journalists had distorted his remarks and threatened to take legal action in response.

At that point, Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance -- which is responsible for press affairs and is one of the few influential institutions run by reformists -- notified the pair that they had violated the law by interviewing a political prisoner. Abdo and Lyons have since said they believe no such law exists.

Reuters says that it received a written warning from the ministry threatening the agency with unspecified action. That triggered Abdo and Lyons' decision to leave the country hastily over the past weekend. This week, in a public statement, the ministry said it would refuse any request for Lyons' return but will accept a new Reuters' candidate.

RFE/RL Persian Service correspondent Sharan Tabari spoke with Abdo soon after she and Lyons arrived in London from Tehran. Abdo said she was expelled by Iran's reformers so that Ganji could distance himself from his statements.

"Once his message came out he realized that his statements are too much of a controversy and he had to retract his statements. Because the reform movement could not discredit Akbar Ganji -- he is now a symbol of free expression in Iran -- they had to discredit me."

Abdo also said she views the experience as proof that Iran's reformists are no more tolerant of a free press than are its conservatives.

"It is the reformers and not the conservatives who, in the end, were after us. And to me that is a very important point because there is too much misguided information that somehow [President Mohammad] Khatami and his reformers are crusaders for free expression. And I think that is what this incident illustrates."

Abdo has also said elsewhere that several interviews she did with prominent conservatives over the last eight months set in motion a campaign against her by reformers. She says reformist critics of these interviews saw them as contributing to critical Western press portrayals of their movement.

But many of Iran's reformists see the incident differently. They say Abdo's criticisms -- which she has repeated in articles in both the "Guardian" and the "International Herald Tribune" since leaving Tehran -- are mystifying.

Reformists told RFE/RL correspondent Tabari by phone from Tehran that many believe Abdo and Lyons made a professional blunder in leaving Tehran and that now they are seeking to shift the blame to others. They say Abdo's criticisms are particularly surprising because she was well-regarded and trusted by reformists in Iran until this crisis.

The crisis is now likely to end with Reuters assigning a new bureau chief for Iran and the two Western papers finding new correspondents.

But it is unlikely that questions and doubts will ever be fully resolved among the three principals themselves: Abdo and Lyons on one side, and Ganji on the other.

Each side is likely to continue to believe the other side betrayed that thin bond of trust between journalists and newsmakers which looks so firm going into an interview but sometimes snaps afterward. And that leaves interested observers nothing to do but choose for themselves whose conflicting story they find more the more credible.