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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 October 2006, 14:02 GMT 15:02 UK
The troubles of reporting from Iran
By Frances Harrison
BBC News, Tehran

Frances Harrison
Frances could face a two month jail sentence for not wearing a scarf

Relations between Iran and the West took another step for the worse when Tehran announced its intention to expand its enrichment of nuclear material.

As our correspondent finds, working as a journalist in these troubled times is no easy matter, especially if you are a woman.

"Are you with Islam or with them?" the man on the other end of the phone asked.

We had telephoned an office run by the right-wing cleric who provides the ideological guidance for President Ahmedinejad.

We only wanted to find out when he was giving a series of lectures so that we could try to film one.

Spoof correspondent

Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi is one of the main contenders in upcoming elections for a constituent assembly that chooses the Supreme Leader, but he is a shadowy figure who does not give interviews to foreign journalists.

The man on the phone asked if we were the people who say there is only 100 people on the streets when 1,000 turn out to support the government.

BBC spoof man
A spoof BBC correspondent criticised the coverage of Iran

At least he had a sense of humour. We all knew what this meant.

I was attacked nightly for a week on Iranian TV in February because I said more than 100,000 people had come out to mark the anniversary of the Iranian revolution. The government said the crowd was three million and claimed I had scandalously underestimated the numbers.

Then, a few days later at a rally to support the Palestinians, we came across a man pretending to be a spoof BBC correspondent and putting on a show for the crowd.

He stood in front of a large backdrop saying BBC, wearing a horrible bright red jacket and tie - and carrying a carrot as a microphone.

The man announced that he was broadcasting live from Tehran and that up until this hour he could confirm nobody had turned out for this government organised demonstration - the streets were completely empty, he said, to the amusement of the crowd.

It did make me wonder if these people had ever watched BBC TV, because surely they would have noticed that the only BBC correspondent in Tehran for the past two years has been a woman. Or maybe they thought I should really be a grey-haired man.

But some viewers have noticed my gender.

Risqué dress

One called the BBC's cable channel in Britain to complain that I was wearing a red headscarf on TV.

Apparently they feared it would affect my objectivity. It prompted a long debate online about my headscarf - interestingly not about what I had reported.

As the dispute over the nuclear issue acerbates, we increasingly find we are treading a line between opposing views of Iran in reporting this country

In 30 emails to the BBC nobody mentioned that I could face a jail sentence of up to two months in this country if I do not wear a scarf. And I am supposed to wear it in the office too because I am working with men I am not related to.

Here, we were amused that it was a red headscarf that was being discussed - because you cannot get more risqué than that in Islamic Iran.

Every day Iranian women here push the boundaries of what is acceptable with Islamic dress. And I am not exactly appearing on camera swathed in a black cape from head to toe like the Iranian TV presenters.

Clothes aside, I have been attacked on blogs online for being married to an Iranian. Instead of giving me an insight into the culture apparently it discredits me in some way.

My husband has been accused of being "a government approved journalist", which does not explain why the authorities here would not give him a press card for a year.

One blog even asked if my husband beat me and ran a picture next to a story about me of a woman in a heavy duty black headscarf with a noose around her neck.

There are plenty of foreign journalists here married to Iranians, but they are men and nobody asks if the fact that they have Iranian wives make them less objective in their reporting.

Nor has the issue of whether they wear ties on camera been hotly debated. Ties of course are highly politicised clothing in Iran where they are viewed by revolutionaries as a symbol of westernisation.

Axis of evil

The attitude is not much different from the man who asked whether we were with Islam or with them.

The presence of the foreign media in Iran is an irritant to those abroad who want regime change but here we are spurned as the propaganda machinery of the enemy, and, increasingly, Iranian officials will not talk to us.

As the dispute over the nuclear issue acerbates, we increasingly find we are treading a line between opposing views of Iran in reporting this country.

There are some people who are not happy when, for example, we report on the Iranian civilians who are slowly dying because they were victims of chemical weapons used by Saddam Hussein.

They cannot accept that Iran did not use chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s - maybe it does not fit with the image of Iran as part of the "axis of evil".

On the other side, some Iranians suspect we report on this sort of issue just to justify, in retrospect, the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein. They ask why Western governments remained silent when Saddam was using chemical bombs against Iran.

When my colleague was asked whether we were with Islam or them - she said we are independent. But increasingly we are being asked to take sides.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 26 October, 2006 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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