With a hopeful message against censorship, Iranian journalist Arash Sigarchi spoke with DW about his encounters with state repression, the significance of free media, Iranian elections and why the future is bright.
Arash Sigarchi was imprisoned in Iran for defying orders and using a blog and later telephone interviews to circumvent government censorship. He later moved to the US, where he has worked for Voice of America in Washington DC since 2008. In 2012, he received Deutsche Welle's BOB's Award for online activism. The Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum has the pleasure of welcoming him this summer to give his input on media freedom.
Deutsche Welle: In a nutshell, why are these Iranian elections so important?
Arash Sigarchi: Well, there are two elections going on: parliamentary elections and elections for the Assembly of Experts. Many people believe that, since (Hassan) Rouhani came to office three years ago, he changed the course of the country, that he tried to reach out to foreign countries. He made a big deal with the 5+1 to make peace over the Iranian nuclear program. Many people in Iran believe if the country continues in this way, it will be better - there will be a bigger benefit for ordinary people.
At the same time, the Assembly of Experts is being elected. That is another discussion. The Assembly has two major roles: first, they advise and also represent the supreme leader. Members of the Assembly of Experts are not in office for four years, but for eight years. That means the people elected this year will be in office until 2024. Iran's supreme leader was sick last year and he is 76 years old and many people believe this assembly of experts will be in charge of choosing Iran's next supreme leader. That is important for a lot of people.
Does it feel strange to you to be covering Iranian politics from the United States?
Yes it is, especially because I am not in the field. But I have worked both sides - in Iran I worked in the field and for eight years now, I have been working outside the country covering domestic politics. But when I compare both approaches, of course if I were in Iran right now, I would be able to cover the elections quite effectively for my audience. But there is a very big advantage to being here as well, because I have more freedom that I didn't have in Iran. For example, before the elections in Iran, intelligence services would call us and ask us not to cover this, not cover that, they asked us to not criticize the supreme leader in any way. But yesterday, Mr. Khomeini, the supreme leader, had a speech two days before the election in which he tried to manipulate the audiences and tell them who to vote for. As a free journalist now, I can talk about how it is not fair that Iran's supreme leader, who according to the law, is not allowed to take sides, has taken sides. But in Iran I wasn't able to talk about things like this (as a journalist).
Do you worry about repercussions for your readers in Iran who follow your coverage?
Honesty, I don't worry right now. But in past governments, such as the previous one - Ahmadinejad's administration - it was worse. Three years ago, I had an interactive show and many people were able to call us and give us their comments about issues. We had some reports because intelligence services by his government were saying ok, if you call foreign media, you will be charged (with a crime). We got messages all the time from our callers telling us that because they called us, the intelligence service contacted them and asked why they were talking to US media. But in the past two years, there hasn't been any evidence that they are persecuting people because of calling us or being in contact with us.
Did the government ever ask you explicitly to censor your work while you were working as a journalist in Iran?
Of course. Honestly, I know every government has censorship, or a certain sensitivity about the news. But sensitivity in Iran was very strong. For example, we were not able to publish any criticism of the supreme leader, about the government, about military organizations, the Revolutionary Guard, and so on. And they didn't tolerate any such criticism and tried to keep us far away from these issues. They called us and told us, if you publish, we will persecute you. And sometimes they did.
Have you ever published anything that you were asked not to publish?
Of course. Intelligence officers told me on several occasions, 'the problem we have with you is that we ask other journalists not to publish and they don't publish. So why are you publishing?' Well, it was because I don't believe in censorship as a journalist. If there is a protest, I have to cover it. And I had to keep finding new ways to circumvent their censorship. I remember in 2003, they asked me not to cover a student protest in my city. They asked me to not publish. So I told them I would comply. I took it out of the print edition of the paper. But I put it on my blog. Blogs were new back then so I thought I would try it there. And I used this method for six months but after that, they found out and they found out that I was getting around censorship so they blocked my blog. After that, I was looking for another way and the best way I found was communicating with media outside of Iran. So every time there was news, I just called foreign radio or TV outlets and gave them an interview. But it was very dangerous for me and finally they got me.
What kind of trouble did you get into?
They accused me of espionage - they accused me of being a spy for the US and UK governments because I gave interviews to VOA, BBC, Radio France. They put me in jail for two months, they gave me a 14-year prison sentence and I was lucky that the appeals court reduced my sentence to three years. So that sentence became finalized and I ended up going to jail for three years. While I was there, I lost my brother in a car accident and then I became sick with cancer. I got some sick leave during my sentence but that didn't count as time served - they wanted me to stay in prison for a year longer. So that's when I decided it was time to leave the country.
What is the most valuable lesson you learned from this ordeal?
Well, it was a disaster. I was jailed, lost a family member and got cancer in jail. That was all very bad. But it showed me how difficult my job is and even after all of this, I was able to survive. The most important point for me was, if you stick to your principles - emphasize on the true principles of journalism - you will win. Maybe not right away, but someday, you will win. Look at my situation right now. I am now working in a big international news organization. In Iran I had a daily reach of about 10,000 or 16,000 people. But right now, I reach millions. So you know, if you are able to protect your side by practicing the principles of journalism, you will win someday.
What is your outlook on media freedom on a global scale?
It is harder because censorship is systematic in several countries. But the good news is we have a new weapon that gives us the opportunity to practice more journalism in a better way. And that is social media. Ten, 15 years ago, we didn't have that. I told you that when I was faced with censorship, I used a blog. That was in 2001-2002 - it was so new for the people. But it helped me. Right now, a Facebook page can help you. And since (the creation of) Facebook, there are now other services such as Instagram and other new apps on cell phones. For example, in Iran 20 million websites are filtered. My blog is filtered in Iran. Our website is also filtered. But there is a phone app called Telegram. Forty-million Iranians have access to Telegram and on this app, there is no censorship. Every single person can receive your message on his or her cell phone. Even though the government is trying its best to manipulate it, they are not able to fully succeed. So I think with this new kind of stuff coming to the marked, we can surpass all censorship. We can send a message to our audience and I believe the future is bright.
So the hope of free media lies in modern technology?
Yes exactly. You know the movement in the US, "Black Lives Matter" - three years ago, we had some news in the US media about black people being killed by white police but there was not enough evidence. But now, people have started using their cell phones to record. So if they get into situations with police, they turn on their camera and record and it has had a big affect on the police approach to them. So it is helpful.