When the recent unrest in Iran resulted in the deaths of several protesters, the US-based Iranian journalist Fereshteh Ghazi decided to follow up on one case — that of Mohsen Adeli, a young man who was killed in Dezful, a city in the southwestern province of Khuzestan.
As a first step, Ghazi conducted an interview with the victim’s father. Shortly after she started to receive threats on Twitter, both against her and her family.
“Earlier it had been rumored that he had been killed in police custody, but his father said that he had been shot in the head by the police in the street,” she says. “It angered some Twitter users who called the interview a ‘service’ to the Islamic Republic. But I was doing my job as a professional journalist.” She added that she could not understand how her reporting could be interpreted in such a way.
Ghazi says that the attacks reached a climax when she criticized Reza Pahlavi, the former Iranian crown prince, for asking the United States Congress for help. “Some of Mr. Pahlavi’s supporters were infuriated and continued to attack me after I tweeted on any subject. It went so far that they entered into a virtual coalition with supporters of the Islamic Republic over the story of Saru Ghahremani, a young man who was killed in prison, adding their own voices to theirs. People supporting the Islamic Republic denied that Saru’s family had been put under pressure and accused me of lying, and the other side fell into their trap.”
Ghazi says she is in shock over the volume and the tone of the attacks, and that she could never have imagined that anyone would wish for her to die, threaten her with death, or threaten members of her family with castration. “I have been attacked by the cyber army of the Islamic Republic many times. They smeared me with the worst kinds of accusations, but I did not mind it and tried to forget about it. But now those who claim they are fighting the Islamic Republic and make proclamations about human rights, freedom and democracy threaten my children because I tweeted something that did not agree with their views. The truth is that for the first time I felt unsafe and helpless. That’s why I went to the police.”
From Wishing Death to Threatening Death
Ghazi says that over the last few days she has been the target of every kind of verbal harassment and that, in addition to profanities posted on public forums, she has received threats via private messages as well. “In private messages,” she says, “the [threats] were less restrained, from gross sexual profanities to threatening me and my two kids with death. For instance, they wished death for me in a tweet or in a mention [in Instagram], but in private messages it changed into actual death threats. They tried to inflict as much psychological damage as possible.”
She offers one example from among many. Ghazi, who is well-known for reporting on the death of Iranian-Canadian freelance photographer Zahra Kazemi in Evin Prison in 2003, was arrested twice in 2004 and was interrogated and tortured for 40 days. “Everybody knows that I had a very difficult time in prison and they smashed my nose,” she says. “I had surgery after prison and they rebuilt my nose from my chest bones. Now it looks normal to everybody, but when people have repeatedly been saying that my nose is crooked, then it is no longer just about my nose. What they want to do is to remind me of those painful memories and to hurt me psychologically.”
But who is sending the messages? “They are not all anonymous,” Ghazi replies. “As it happens, I know a number of them very well. They are either supporters of Reza Pahlavi or pro-Trump Iranians or used to identify themselves as reformists but now identify with Reza Pahlavi. But beyond these people and a few others that I know are real and not false names, the rest are made-up IDs. Some of them even had no followers or only a couple. When I looked at their Twitter feeds I saw that they had not posted even one tweet, as if the accounts were brand new or had been created with a specific goal in mind.”
Ghazi says that she has evidence that some of the attacks were organized. “I cannot say and do not allow myself to say that all of them were organized,” she says. “What I can say is that some people joined a wave of organized attacks without having been organized themselves. They tried to portray me as someone that I am not. Besides all the threats and insults, they were all expressing the same thing: I am an agent of the Islamic Republic or its security forces because I was able to talk to the family of Saru Ghahremani, whereas other reporters or news agencies had not succeeded in doing this. They claim that I posted anti-Reza Pahlavi tweets and, therefore, I am an agent of the Islamic Republic. They ignore my past and my professional record and want to create a new identity for me, an identity that is not mine. They are trying to destroy my professional identity by affiliating me as a journalist with a political agenda.”
Attacked by Both Sides
She says that she has been attacked by both sides because of her reporting on the suspicious death of Saru Ghahremani in custody. “One side is the supporters of the Islamic Republic who deny that Saru’s family has been put under pressure and accuse me of lying,” says Ghazi. “The other side is a coalition of pro-Trump Iranians and supporters of Reza Pahlavi who at the beginning also accused me of lying but then changed their tune and accused me of cooperating with the Islamic Republic security apparatus. They claimed that is why I was able to interview the family. But the fact is that I did not publish the interview because the family was under pressure from security forces and, considering the situation, what they said was not reliable. So I only wrote that they were under pressure from security forces.”
Fereshteh Ghazi has been reporting on political prisoners and other victims in Iran and their plights for years. But this is the first time that she has found herself the target of such venom. “Since 2009, I have written about the dead, the executed and political prisoners more than any other subject,” she says. “In the course of recent protests I stood by the people, criticized the reformists [who did not support the protests] and I wrote about the protesters who were killed and arrested. I received support and help but I had never witnessed anything like what I am experiencing now — not in response to my reporting and interviews and not in response to my tweets. The only similar experience that I have had was when the [pro-Ahmadinejad paper] Vatan-e Emrouz accused me of every imaginable moral and financial crime and of espionage because of my writing and my interviews.”
Harassed for Being a Woman
According to available statistics on online harassment, women face threats far more often than men do. Fereshteh Ghazi believes that if she were a male journalist she would not have been targeted with so many sexual insults and her critics would have left her looks, her body, and her clothes alone. “They would not call a man a whore for his professional journalism or for his civil or political activities,” she says, “but unfortunately this is the most common word that they use to attack women and it is often the first word they use in their sexual insults. There can be no doubt that male journalists are not attacked this way.”
Following the wave of online harassment and threats, Ghazi went to her local police. “More than anything else, I went to them for my own mental security,” she says. “Naturally, when [those who attacked her online] clearly point to the city where I live, say that finding my address is not difficult and threaten that soon I will be mourning my children, going to the police was the least I could do. They have experts in this field and do a good job of handling it. They told me I did not have to translate or print [the insulting messages]. They would take care of it themselves and would contact me. They assured me that I did not have to worry about the safety of my children or myself. They took down the addresses that my children might go to, from school to arts and sports classes. My mind was at peace when I returned.”
Ghazi believes that the best way to confront this kind of harassment is to report it. “If you lose your peace of mind,” she suggests, “you should go to the police and seek help from counselors and experts to get it back.”