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Iran: Farda Journalist Details 'Unfortunate' UN Incident

Ahmad Rafat (file photo) (Courtesy Photo) A correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Persian-language Radio Farda, barred from covering a UN food summit in Rome, is speaking in detail about the incident, which has attracted the attention of Italian politicians and the international media.

Ahmad Rafat, who is also a reporter for Voice of America, had his press pass confiscated and was barred from entering the UN Food and Agricultural Organization's (FAO) premises on June 3. Visiting Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad was due to hold a press conference at the event later the same day.

The Iranian-born Rafat believes the FAO barred him from attending the event at the request of the Iranian government.

The case has raised concerns about whether the Iranian government was essentially allowed to censor the international press.

The FAO later admitted Rafat to the summit, but only after Ahmadinejad had left the grounds. The FAO's director of communications, Nick Parson, offered an apology, saying the organization was "extremely satisfied" that the issue had been resolved.

But many questions remain, including why Tehran might be so concerned over a single reporter's presence at a public event and how such concern could translate into security guards at a UN facility turning the reporter away.

Radio Farda is a U.S. Congressionally funded joint venture between RFE/RL and Voice of America that broadcasts in Persian to Iran.

'You Cannot Enter'

Rafat says the trouble began when he arrived at the FAO building to begin a day of summit coverage that was to include attendance at Ahmadinejad's press conference. He showed his official press accreditation for the summit, submitted his bags for inspection, and walked through the metal detector.

"On the other side, there was a gentleman from the Italian police who was looking at a piece of paper in his hand and looking at me. He told me, 'You cannot enter,'" Rafat says. "I asked why, and he said the FAO did not want it. Then, after checking my ID, he said, 'I must ask you to leave the building.'"

When Rafat protested, Italian police explained that the UN building has extraterritorial status and, although they provide security, all decisions over who comes and goes are entirely the FAO's to make.

Rafat, who is also deputy director of the biggest private news agency in Italy, Adnkronos, immediately alerted the media. He said he was shocked at his exclusion.

So were those who heard about it.

"Some 60 politicians released communiques supporting me and condemning the decision of FAO," Rafat says. "After that came statements from the Italian association of the press, the Foreign Press Club in Rome, the trade union of Italian journalists, and the International Federation of Journalists in Brussels."

'Gravest' Of Mistakes

European Parliament Vice President Mario Mauro criticized the incident as the "gravest" of mistakes and said it risked giving the impression that an undemocratic country was imposing its will upon the international community.

Demonstrators outside the FAO summit in Rome (AFP)

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said he had ordered the head of the Italian delegation to the FAO to investigate the case.

Rafat says he believes Tehran might have pressed the UN agency to exclude him because of news he broadcast ahead of Ahmadinejad's trip to Rome. Those broadcasts, in Persian to Iran via Radio Farda, focused on the public controversy in Italy over the visit.

"I interviewed the director of an Italian daily ["Il Riformista"] who had organized a campaign against Ahmadinejad and who asked all Italian politicians not to meet [with] the Iranian president," Rafat says. "This appeal was immediately supported by the Italian foreign minister, who sent a letter to the newspaper saying he can't sign the appeal because he is a minister, but he morally supported it."

Rafat's reports detailed the Italian politicians' objections to Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust and his confrontational attitude toward the West. Rafat also interviewed people on the street, some of whom reflected generally hostile public opinion toward the visit.

"I was practically the only voice from Italy reporting to Iran through Radio Farda and VOA TV that the situation in Italy was not how the Iranian state press portrayed it," Rafat says. "I reported the truth that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had scheduled an official dinner and the only two heads of state not invited were Ahmadinejad and Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe. I think that made Tehran want to silence me."

But while Rafat was prevented from attending Ahmadinehad's press conference, the outcry over the incident has now created an international embarrassment for Tehran.

And, until the details of the move become clearer, a UN agency has been implicated in the exclusion. The FAO declined Radio Farda requests for an interview on June 5.

One Question Ready

Rafat says he had a question ready for Ahmadinejad -- one to which Iranians might genuinely want an answer.

"My question was: If Iran is the second-largest oil producer in the world after Saudi Arabia, and the second-largest gas producer after Russia, and has more than $40 billion in reserves, why does such a rich country have 7 million people living under the poverty line of less than $1 a day?" Rafat says.

Rafat says that Ahmadinejad has responded in the past in Iran with answers suggesting that "the economy is managed by the 12th imam," a religious leader whose return devout Shi'a await to usher in a golden age, or by challenging conventional wisdom by asking, "Who says inflation is a bad thing?"

"I don't think he could have given such an answer in front of an international audience of journalists, because everyone would have started laughing," Rafat says. "But I do wonder what he would have said."