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Page last updated at 00:33 GMT, Sunday, 10 April 2011 01:33 UK
Freed journalist: Iranian regime's 'information fears'

Maziar Bahari
Maziar Bahari faces jail if he returns to Iran

Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari was held in a Tehran jail for 118 days in 2009. His arrest came as he worked for western media outlets, including BBC Panorama. In this analysis, Mr Bahari explains why the regime fears information, the internet and a free press.

"Information is a weapon, and in the wrong hands it is even more dangerous than a real gun!"

This was my torturer's message to me in the summer of 2009 after my arrest.

"You, Mr. Bahari, used the information you gathered against our master, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the rightful successor of the prophet and the family of the prophet on this earth. You used information like a gun against our master. You are a terrorist, albeit a peaceful terrorist, Mr. Bahari."

He was a zealot who made a living by beating and humiliating innocent men and women in dark interrogation rooms and torture chambers.

My arrest came after I filmed scenes of Iran's militia shooting from their base at protesters - some of whom had been throwing petrol bombs at the militia. I saw two people shot dead that day.

'Guilty'

The images were broadcast around the world as supporters of the Green Movement took to the streets to protest what was widely seen as a fixed election result that returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power with a landslide. I was arrested a week later.

My torturer described me as "a mild-mannered agitator, a velvet coup plotter, a soft seditionist".

As I sat blindfolded in that torture room listening to this man's twisted interpretation of the world, I understood what frightened him and his master, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei - it was information.

And I was guilty of informing people.

Iran's rulers see information as a threat to their corrupt and unjust rule.

FIND OUT MORE
Panorama logo
Jane Corbin presents Panorama: Living with the Ayatollah
BBC One, Monday, 11 April
2030BST

Their answer to the problem my work created for them was to coerce me under threat of a death sentence to "confess" that I had agitated on behalf of the West, effectively I was a spy acting to undermine the Islamic Republic.

My "confession" was recorded by and aired on Press TV, the English language satellite channel set up by the Iranian government.

They have an office in a non-descript building in west London but claim to be independent of the Iranian regime and Press TV in Tehran. They have not responded to Panorama's requests for an interview to discuss Press TV's role in my forced "confession".

In some ways, I was the lucky one - my work with American magazine Newsweek and others meant that my case was high-profile, Hillary Clinton spoke out on my behalf at one stage - others were not so lucky and still languish in those cells.

After 118 days, I was released on bail and fled to London. Returning to my homeland is no longer an option for me.

Cyber-activism

It is a country without a true government, as regimes such as this do not govern their people, they simply try to control them.

A true government would address 15% inflation, joblessness and the more than 10 million drug addicts in a country of 70 million people.

Instead the regime devotes its energy and resources to jailing journalists and activists, building bigger prisons, filtering the internet, and financing suicide jihadists and cyber-warriors.

They no doubt miss the good old days in the 1980s when brute force and control of the media allowed them to control much of the information received by Iranians.

Tehran protest February 2011
Protests across the Arab world spread to Tehran in February

But the 1990s brought first satellite television and then the internet and Iranians found new ways to speak and be heard. Persian quickly became the second most commonly used language on the blogosphere after English.

As Iranians embraced the internet, cyber-activism took on as much importance as more traditional forms of struggle, in some sense surpassing them because of its relative immunity from the security forces' repressive measures.

This struggle culminated in the Green Movement after the June 2009 presidential elections, when millions of Iranians came to the streets of Tehran and other cities to call for a more humane and accountable government.

The collective decision of Iranians at that stage was to give the regime one last chance for reform, but government forces answered people's peaceful demands with truncheons and bullets.

The revolutionary guards and the Basij paramilitaries suppressed the demonstrations on the streets for months.

Did it work? Well, in February and March of this year, when thousands of brave Iranians took part in renewed demonstrations, they were no longer asking for reform.

This time they chanted: "Death to the Dictator."

'Tools to speak'

Facebook and other social networks are home to the debate over where they go next and I expect we will see more demonstrations in the near future.

Despite the government's denials, the Green Movement is very much alive and is a threat to Ayatollah Khamenei's rule.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Bahari believes Ayatollah Khamenei's rule is threatened by technology

Cyber-activism is not peripheral to this movement. It is crucial to the Iranian people's struggle.

It is here that the voices of dissent in Iran and elsewhere need the help of the free world.

Western leaders, perhaps dispirited by all aspects of Iran's regime, should know they have no better ally than the people of Iran.

I do not believe that the West should take sides and support any one group.

What the West can and should do in my view, is help provide Iranians with the tools they need to speak to one another, to enable them to reach their own democratic future.

This needs to include technologies which allow them to communicate with each other and the rest of the world, be it satellite internet, filter busters, new video and audio compression methods and the lifting of sanctions imposed on software developers.

Any less would, I believe, condemn the people of Iran to ongoing oppression.

Panorama: Living with the Ayatollah, BBC One, Monday, 11 April at 2030BST and then available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer.



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