The elections for the 5th Tehran City Council will take place on May 19, coinciding with the presidential election and elections for local councils across Iran. Among the registered candidates are several journalists, including Azadeh Taj-Ali, Nasrin Vaziri, Yashar Soltani, Morteza Kazemi, all familiar names to Tehran residents. Across the capital, people are asking: Why are these journalists running for council jobs? Is it possible to hold a semi-governmental position and still remain independent as a journalist?
Journalist Azadeh Taj-Ali, one of those who registered to run for the council, tackled the question in an op-ed for the newspaper Shahrvand (“The Citizen”). In an article entitled “Where do Journalists Fit in the City Council?”, she argues that journalists are cultural activists, so people trust them and what they write, and have faith that they “are most knowledgeable about citizens’ problems.”
Taj-Ali concedes that most of the journalists who registered as candidates are close to reformists, and that, if elected, they are more likely to select people in tune with reformist ideas to run the municipality. But she also poses a pertinent question: “Would a reformist journalist be able to supervise the performance of a reformist mayor as well as he would criticize a conservative one?”
We put this question to Morteza Kazemian, who has worked as a journalist for 20 years, and is also a political activist. Before his work as a journalist, he belonged to and worked for the moderate coalition the Council of Nationalist-Religious Activists of Iran.
Kazemian believes that being both a journalist with “national concerns” and a political activist are not incompatible pursuits. “If we agree,” says Kazemian, “that a journalist must be an unbiased and responsible seeker of truth, that he must care deeply about national interests and the interests of his society and put them before his own personal interests, then this starting point is not only consistent with journalism, but it can also further motivate a journalist because he will want to discover truth and information even more. Plus, the nature of this profession will drive an individual to try harder to make this information available to everybody and increase people’s participation in circulating this data.”
Kazemian says that, most likely, the journalists who have registered to run for the city council have not done so to become members of a power center. If there are journalists who feel they can make a difference through this “quasi-governmental” organ that “mediates between the society and the power structure,” then they can endeavor to “discover truth” and “lift social welfare” by giving priority to “national and social interests.” This, he says, does not clash with any of the professional obligations that come with being a journalist.
Kazemian also believes that if journalists refuse to be swayed by special interests or coerced into defending these interests while in the council, they can effectively continue their mission of discovering truth. “The participation of journalists is important,” he says. “They are the people armed with magnifying glasses who can provide information in a transparent manner.”
“Society’s Probing Eyes”
Kazemian concedes that local councils are “intermediaries” and close to “political power.” But he believes councils are distant enough from the government to be in touch with the people, their demands, their troubles and their grievances. From this point of view, he says, journalists working at council level can function as the “society’s probing eyes,” reporting on council efforts to address shortcomings in education, health, the economy and culture, and then pursuing these issues within the council.
So what does his own experience as both a journalist and a political activist tell him about what the climate will be like for journalists who join the council? Will they face threats or intimidation?
Kazemian says there are “gangs of power and wealth” that have attached themselves to local councils to satisfy their own special interests. So, he says, journalists must make a pact with themselves to stay true to the ethics of journalism and to safeguard “the professional honor of journalism, national interests and the interests of the people.” They must promise to themselves that they will “never accept bribes and never put their own interests above the people’s interest. They must act according to their conscience and treat the information and data from the viewpoint of social welfare — not as merchandise.”
If journalists do not settle these questions with themselves, he says, they will have a hard time working in a political and social environment. Journalists will have to deal both with threats coming from these powerful and wealthy groups with vested interests and from what he describes as “the dominant political climate.” If a journalist is not vigilant, he or she risks being open to corruption, especially since they can potentially demand “astronomical sums” for the information they are privy to as members of the council. Pressures and threats from powerful groups of people affiliated with the security and military agencies are unfortunately a given, Kazemian says.
“As long as a journalist seeks the truth, pursues human rights and democracy and cares about national interests, there will be no clash between his political activities and his profession as a journalist,” Kazemian says. “The moment his activities become subservient to party and political projects and he puts party interests before national interests then this inconsistency emerges. A journalist must be accountable to the public.”
…But Many Journalists Deserve Criticism
Kazemian acknowledges that many journalists already deserve the criticism of not being accountable. They close their eyes to reality or give their readers a distorted picture of reality for the sake of their own political and party interests. As an example, he cites the August 2016 release of the audio file about the 1988 mass execution of thousands of political prisoners. “In some papers, like [the hardliner] Kayhan, they prefer to distort the truth rather than uncover it, and to bless violence rather than human rights.”
When the family of the late Ayatollah Montazeri published the audio clip, “even some semi-independent media and those who call themselves independent did not delve into such an important event — an event that according to the late Montazeri was a crime,” says Kazemian. “Even worse, they criticized his son for publishing the audio file without even mentioning the event itself. In other words, they sacrificed the right of the people to know the truth to personal or political interests.”
I contacted other journalists currently running for city council in the hope of interviewing them, but they declined. Several said they were scared of pressures from hardliners, or were afraid that the interview might lead to them being disqualified from running.
That fear is sobering, and speaks to the pressures journalists routinely face, whether they are politically active or not. Iran’s political system and media environment both suffer when such constraints are in place.
Now we wait. Will these journalists be elected? Will they operate as “society’s probing eyes” as they should?