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Interview: 'Support Journalists Who Were Forced To Flee Iran'

Iranian photojournalist Hasan Sarbakhshian is among the dozens of journalists who fled Iran following last year's disputed presidential vote.

Sarbakhshian, who is currently living in Washington, says he was forced to leave Iran after the authorities refused to renew his press card after working for 10 years as a photographer for the Associated Press.

He also talks about the situation of other journalists and reporters who have been forced to leave their country to escape arrest and prison with RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari.

RFE/RL: Why did you decide to leave Iran?

Hasan Sarbakhshian:
Two weeks before the presidential election [in June 2009], the Culture Ministry banned me from working, they said they had received a letter from Iran's Intelligence Ministry saying that I shouldn't work.

This [kind of pressure] had been going on for some 10 years, but then it reached a sensitive point. After the vote, right after the results were announced and the incidents took place that we all witnessed, the situation changed dramatically. There were arrests and more pressure and I realized that staying in Iran was not a good idea.

I didn't even have a work permit and from previous experience I knew that it was not going to be easy. My former colleagues or colleagues who worked in other media had faced similar pressure, so I decided to leave Iran and some 40 days after the presidential vote, I left the country.

RFE/RL: Yet you took pictures and video of some of the demonstrations that took place in protest to the reelection of Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Yes, in a way so I wasn't very visible. And currently I'm editing those pictures and films and I hope to make them ready for the anniversary of last year's presidential vote.

RFE/RL: Can you describe one scene that you witnessed and touched you the most?

I will never forget -- the day after the vote we were touring the streets with my colleagues, our office was close to the Interior Ministry -- right on the northern side of Fatemi Square the plainclothes forces were beating a woman on the head with batons very badly, out of fear and also because of the atmosphere of fear that ruled there.

I wasn't able to document that scene but it will never be erased from my mind, maybe because I couldn't document it, it has remained on my mind.

Prevented From Doing Their Work

RFE/RL: Over 70 journalists, reporters and bloggers have reportedly been forced to leave Iran in the aftermath of last June's disputed vote. Photojournalists have also come under pressure. How many photographers and photojournalists have fled Iran? What kind of information do you have about those in jail?

I think about 10 had to leave Iran and currently about three or four of our friends are in jail in Iran and I don't have information about their fate in prison. Among them are Mehraneh Atashi and also Babak Bordbar.

They say when there is a storm, it [affects] everyone, and I think particularly because the Iranian government paid a heavy price for the photos and images of the [postelection demonstrations] photographers were harshly punished. It was expected in a place where there is no freedom of expression. In fact, pictures and images have always been sensitive for Iran's Islamic establishment since after the [1980-88 war with Iraq], many photographers were harassed but it wasn't made public. I have many examples but I don't want to mention them because it involves some of our colleagues who remain in Iran.

In the past 30 years, whenever an image was made public that wasn't approved by the establishment, the photographer who took it would be punished and often very harshly. Being arrested or banned from work was the price photojournalists had to pay for their work.

RFE/RL: What problems and challenges are you and other journalists who have been forced to leave Iran facing?

For me it has been difficult because I had to leave Iran right at the time when I should have been there [to document events]. Many of my colleagues are unfortunately not in a good situation for a number of reasons: they don't speak the language of the country where they are, they lack financial support, and they have to wait a long time before their status becomes clear through the UN or other places.

I had a visa so I could come to the United States but for others it's not so easy, it's a long-term process before they obtain a visa.

Their situation is not easy to describe, they're intellectuals, people who were feeding their society culturally but now they're having difficulty making a living, yet we shouldn't express pity for them. I believe it is the duty of Iranians and also the international community to help them because of the price these people have paid to bring the uncensored voice of the Iranian people to the world and to other Iranians, and if this help is out of pity then it could be the worst kind of pressure on these people.

Based on the information I have, our colleagues who are now in some European countries or countries neighboring Iran aren't in a good psychological situation because they can't work. When you work you forget many of the pressures you're facing, but when you don't even have the job you enjoy and through which you made a living, that is a very difficult situation.