Inside Iran: Truth and its Consequences

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TEHRAN, Iran - From the moment I arrived in Iran's capital city Tehran, I knew this foreign assignment was going to be different.

Within minutes of setting up our camera and starting our first assignment, we got a taste of just how much control the authorities in this country have on the lives of its people, but also on the foreign media.

We were repeatedly pulled aside by the police, taken in some cases into police stations and questioned why we were there, what we were shooting. And they repeatedly asked for our papers.

The man in charge of the Iranian Foreign Press office said the government is trying to give foreign journalists more freedom to do their job. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has launched a training program to educate the security services on the role of the press.

"We are trying to train the police about the function of a foreign correspondent, what they are doing in the country, and the differences between a local and a foreign reporter," said Ali Reaza Sheravi of the Iranian Foreign Press Office. "We are really trying to solve these problems."

There are a dozen or more international media agencies operating inside Iran in any given month.

"The more foreign correspondents we have the better we can understand each other, and this way you can reflect the ideas of our nation to others around the world," Sheravi said.

Sounds good but don't be fooled. Reporting in Iran is not easy. Everything here requires permission in advance. If you try to take pictures of anything without permission, you are in trouble.

This is, after all, one of the world's most repressive regimes. And the religious men who rule this country deeply distrust the foreign media.

It is one thing to be a foreign journalist trying to operate in Iran, it is quite another to be an Iranian journalist trying to cover the events in this country.

A reporter at one of Iran's leading English newspapers said, "We try to be as objective as possible, to portray what is on the ground. To say the good news and the bad news."

But off-camera, he admitted that is impossible to do. Newspapers that are critical of the government have come under attack by radical Islamic clerics.

And these days, with tensions high over Iran's nuclear program, the regime has explicitly warned journalists not to criticize its nuclear policies.

Publicly, most Iranians support their government's push for nuclear technology. Privately, many don't think they are getting the full story about Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"Some people are naturally pessimistic about this issue," said our Iranian reporter, "and they do not believe what they see themselves."

In Iran today, to be a dissident or to speak of freedom and democracy is to live dangerously.

Since 2000, more than 100 newspapers have been shut down. Hundreds of journalists and photographers have lost their jobs.

Iran has been called the biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East.

The election of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has not improved the situation either.

Reporters Without Borders, an international media watchdog group, has accused Ahmadinejad of being a "predator" of press freedoms. Several independent newspapers have been closed on his watch.

There are about 20 national newspapers that are printed each day and those that rule this country vie for influence and power using the national newspapers.

But few are reading these newspapers. Tehran resident Siamak said, "They're not very reliable, and we cannot trust them."

We also asked a woman we met on the street about her views of Iranian journalists.

CBN News: Do you trust the media?

Woman: Not at all

CBN News: Not at all?

Woman: Not at all, because the government controls it. The power is in the hands of the leaders. We know that they can't write the truth.

CBN News: Because they are afraid?

Woman: Yes, of course.

And so, an increasing number are turning to alternative sources for information.

According to the statistics that are available, close to seven million Iranians today have access to the Internet, and in downtown Tehran, we saw a number of Internet cafés.

Esfan is an example of a young Iranian who is attracted to the Internet. One of the things he loves to look at on the Internet is political news.

"There was a time that I did not know who the leader of Cuba was," Esfan said. "But now that I have access to high-speed Internet, and I can learn about a lot of things taking place around me, I have a better idea of what is going on in the world, and this helps me make better decisions."

There are about 1, 500 Internet cafés in Tehran. The Web is allowing Iranians to express themselves in ways they would never dare of doing in public.

"Iranian youth today are not necessarily going on the Internet just to read about news, but they are using the internet for entertainment purposes," Esfan said.

Internet use is growing faster in Iran than anywhere else in the Middle East. Iran boasts the fourth-largest nation of bloggers. There are more than 100,000 Web blogs operating from inside the country, covering all sorts of topics from dating to Western-style entertainment and politics.

Meanwhile, foreign satellite television is also making a big impact on the society. Even though there is a ban on owning dishes, they are everywhere. And many of the programs are produced by Iranians living in exile in Los Angeles.

There is no doubt that the changes that are taking place today in Iran are small changes. Even though people have access to the Internet or satellite television, the Iranian government is still very much in control of this country.

And the folks that we have spoken to say it will take a very long time to change the hearts and minds of the Iranian regime.

*Original broadcast June 2006.

Related Link:

Reporter Without Borders

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CBN News
George Thomas

George Thomas

CBN News Sr. Reporter

CBN News is a national/international, nonprofit news organization that provides programming 24 hours a day by cable, satellite and the Internet.