"According to my research 20 percent of Iranian journalists were tortured" (part 2)
"According to my research 20 percent of Iranian journalists were tortured" (part 2)
08 September 2015 by Sanne Wass

Iranian journalists are exposed to severe stress because of their work, which is affecting their emotional wellbeing, according to new research.

In the second part of the interview with Journalism Is Not A Crime, Dr. Anthony Feinstein, who is behind the research, explains why PTSD might affect the ability of journalists to work, and how his new research can be used to help journalists who are suffering from PTSD or depression.

Read part one of this interview.


How might symptoms of PTSD affect the ability of journalists to work?

We know from the literature that individuals with full-blown PTSD can struggle to work. I have seen this clinically; I have seen journalists who because of their behavior in the newsroom had been asked to take time away from work to get therapy, to get their thoughts under better control. Colleagues may not want to work with a journalist with PTSD because they feel their safety is compromised by his erratic behavior or his poor judgment, so a traumatized journalist may struggle to keep working.


What is the biggest challenge in order to help these journalists?

The challenge, and this is a big challenge, is to get the journalists to seek professional help. You have got to get beyond the stigma of this. You’ve got to be able to persuade the journalists that it’s in their best interest to get help for what’s troubling them.

We collect data for a number of reasons. One is to define the extent of the problem. This is what we have done. The next reason is to try to get help for journalists who need it, because if you have PTSD or depression, it generally doesn’t get better by itself. You have got to get help, and it is treatable. In countries like Iran there is certainly a well-developed psychiatric system, and the same for countries where many Iranian journalists live, like the US, the UK and Canada. So the challenge becomes: how do you get the journalists to seek the help?


In your experience, what is the best strategy to get journalists to seek help?

I say this time and time again: Education, education, education. The best strategy to encourage journalists to accept help is to educate them about psychological trauma. Educated journalists understand that it’s in their best interest to get help for these conditions. The moment they start to appreciate what they are suffering from, the moment they understand how the symptoms are getting in their way, then the penny drops. Then they understand that treatment is necessary.

Getting the managers on board is extremely important as well. Because if the managers understand this, then they start changing the culture of the newsroom, and they can let journalists know that it’s acceptable to seek help.


Why should people help these journalists, and how can we make them care?

Over the last 16 years I have found that if you want to change an organization’s attitude to psychological trauma, you have to present them with the statistics. That’s why a study like this is so important. If you can go to a news organization and say: This is what we found, we are not talking about anecdotes, rumors or people’s subjective impressions. These are statistics. Twenty percent of the Iranian journalists were tortured; over 50 percent of their families were intimidated. These are very high numbers. If you present the organizations with the facts, they will realize that these kinds of stressors are potentially very harmful to journalists.


When you talk about PTSD among journalists, one thing that comes to mind is that many Iranians from all walks of life, whether they are journalists, doctors, football players or politicians, have many of these symptoms. Is it possible to say that a nation suffers from PTSD?

The answer is almost surely no. To be diagnosed with PTSD you have to have endured a significant stressor. You must have confronted a stress that could have led to your death or the death of someone else. So the bar is very high. It’s really not conceivable that an entire nation is going to endure a stress like that. That said; when you live in dangerous societies, a high numbers of people can be threatened and witness others die. Under those circumstances you will find that the rates of trauma in those societies can be high.


How might PTSD undermine a society? Isn’t it counterproductive for a government to create these situations?

Clearly you don’t want a society to have a lot of members with emotional distress. That’s going to be a dysfunctional society. That said, I’m not too sure oppressive governments care too much about these things; I imagine that on a list of priorities, this comes very low down, if at all.

What happens in repressive regimes is that people leave. Look at our study: One third of the journalists completed the questionnaires inside Iran; two thirds were outside the country. The Iranian journalists are very well educated, and what we see is that two thirds of the group we studied have left the country. This is a brain drain. Repressive regimes drive away the brightest of their people. These countries are going to be hurt very badly by the brain drain. Almost surely that has happened in Iran, certainly it happened in South Africa during apartheid. This becomes a self-defeating exercise in the end, and repression is not good for a society, we know that.


It took you almost three years to collect the answers to your questions. Why do you think the journalists were so reluctant to answer the questionnaire?

In trying to collect the data we had to go through many challenges, and it took us a long time to get the data. I should say in general, collecting data from journalists, not just Iranian journalists, is problematic because you are asking them to give up time, and you are intruding into their lives to collect very personal information that relates to sensitive topics.

But the Iranian study was the most difficult of all the studies I have worked on. There can be a number of reasons. I suspect the journalists were initially reluctant to divulge psychological data to someone you they didn’t know. I was struck early on by the level of paranoia or suspiciousness amongst the journalists. There were concerns that the state might have been monitoring them. So there was a lot of fear as to what it might mean to their personal safety if they took part in a study like this.

Indeed we could only overcome the barrier when the journalists found out that I was associated with Maziar Bahari and we were working on this project together. It made them comfortable in answering the questions. Of the 150 journalists we approached, 76 percent agreed to take part in the study. This is a very good response rate.


This is part two of the interview with Dr. Anthony Feinstein. Read the first part, in which Dr. Feinstein explains how PTSD manifests itself and why Iranian journalists in the diaspora might have a higher level of some symptoms.

Read more about the study.

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