The Exchange: Lynsey Addario and Shirin Ebadi Talk Iran

Is anyone free to report on Tehran?


Since the fall of 2013, the international media have offered a weekly, and sometimes hourly, tick-tock of the successes and setbacks leading up to a nuclear deal with Iran. Largely missed by this exhaustive news cycle, however, have been the human rights abuses that persist in the Islamic Republic. Last year alone saw, by some accounts, more than 700 executions, upwards of 100 Bahais—Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority—in detainment, and the imprisonment of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian.

The challenges of covering these types of abuses and the vulnerability of a free press are things with which American photojournalist and MacArthur “genius” grant awardee Lynsey Addario is all too familiar: She has been kidnapped twice herself—first in Iraq in 2004 and then again in Libya in 2011—for documenting those caught in the cross-hairs of conflict. Iranian lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi’s work defending the Bahai community and publicizing Iran’s dismal rights record made her a target of the regime, which shut down her Tehran-based human rights center in 2008 and detained her sister the next year. Ebadi was ultimately forced into exile in 2009.

Today, drawing from their personal experiences, both women are chroniclers of injustice. Addario, a frequent New York Times contributor, penned It’s What I Do, a memoir in which she shares the often harrowing stories behind her photographs of rape victims in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, everyday life under the Taliban, and injured U.S. soldiers leaving Fallujah. Ebadi’s Treachery: My Story of Exile From Iran is due out in early 2016. The two recently caught up to discuss the importance of an open press, how to fight censorship, and what Iran is really like.

Shirin Ebadi: Lynsey, you managed to travel to Iran as a female photojournalist. How difficult was it for you to actually obtain a visa?

Lynsey Addario: I haven’t been able to get into the country in nine years. But when I did get a visa, a lot of what I was doing was in private homes and sort of in secret.

SE: In your opinion, if a country is making it so difficult for journalists to obtain a visa, what does that actually mean?

LA: I become very skeptical as a journalist. If journalists are not allowed inside and there’s no freedom of speech, clearly people, their opinions, their views, and the way they live are oppressed in some way. In Iran’s case, that’s to great detriment because Iran is an incredible country. The people are very educated and have a lot to say. If more journalists were allowed into Iran, there would actually be great sympathy for the people.

SE: What is good about Iran is related to the people of the country and the civilization of Iran. What the government does not want the world to know is its own performance. So you must differentiate between what the government does and [the] people and the civilization.

LA: Exactly. Exactly. Before I went to Iran, I had this idea of what it would be like—this dark, oppressive place—and it was the opposite. I ended up meeting incredibly intelligent people, going out for wonderful dinners in private homes, and seeing how cultured and how open the Iranian people were. And I think that’s precisely the reason why I can’t get a visa to go back, because I did many stories on how Iran was actually the opposite of what we had seen in the Western media. And I don’t think the government actually liked that.

* * *

LA: It’s so important that journalists are able to get into difficult-to-get-into places like Iran. At the end of the day, the job is to show a real picture of what these countries are like.

SE: Iran is one of the worst countries for journalists. We have a large number of journalists in prison at the moment. Is Jason Rezaian one of your friends?

LA: No, he’s a friend of a friend. But he’s Washington Post! His detainment should be more public news. It’s outrageous that a Washington Post journalist is in prison.

SE: Unfortunately, this is a very tragic reality in Iran. Just recently, in May, there were reports on Iranian news that Mohammad-Reza Moradi, the editor in chief of a publication called Bayan Eghtesad, was arrested because he compiled a report on the corruption in a city council.

LA: In your opinion, what’s the best way to deal with this?

SE: I think that foreign journalists must go to the aid of their Iranian counterparts, and they must publish what the Iranian journalists cannot. The European Union and the United States have both compiled a list of Iranian officials who have violated human rights. They’ve banned these officials from entering their countries and confiscated any of their assets in the West. That’s very good, but this list is still too short.

* * *

LA: In a lot of the conflict zones where I’ve worked, there is very little to no freedom of the press for journalists, particularly local journalists. But I feel very strongly about the role of journalism. We have to interview the local people. We have to get their stories told. When we get those stories out to policymakers, to people in positions of power, they have to act on it. That’s why I feel like it is important to cover places like Iran. Or like, I felt it was very important to be in Libya when I was there in 2011. And I ended up in prison. I ended up kidnapped for a week, but I think it was important to bear witness to what was happening in the uprising.

SE: This is exactly the case. Everyone pays a price for what they believe in—and the same applies to journalists.

* * *

SE: In all these personal experiences with detainment, with regards to my family members and so on, I have made sure that they have been well publicized. I’ve written about this in my books and have asked: How do you think a government that’s behaved in such a way with a human rights activist, with a lawyer who has won a Nobel Peace Prize, behaves toward unknown students or young journalists in the country?

LA: I agree. I think that we have to use these more-high-profile kidnappings to bring attention to people who are detained.

SE: This has been my objective in publishing my diaries. One of my very close colleagues, with whom I have worked with for many years, is the well-known feminist Narges Mohammadi. She has been sentenced to six years of imprisonment by a very unjust court for her human rights activities. Her husband, Taghi Rahmani, is a political activist and a journalist, and he also spent 16 years behind bars in the Islamic Republic of Iran. At the moment, he’s a refugee living in Paris. He cannot return to Iran because if he takes the risk and does that, he could end up being behind bars for the rest of his life.

Addario: Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images; Ebadi: TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images

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