State Boots March over the Privacy of Critics
Once more in the past fourteen years the Iranian regime has invaded the privacy of intellectuals, journalists, and critics of the state. Even the private lives of those who embraced exile and emigrated have not been spared from this invading entity. Fourteen years ago state-run television began airing the documentary “Hovyat” (‘identity’ in Persian) on Friday afternoons so the militia could invade the personal boundaries of intellectuals, writers, and journalists critical of the government in Iran. Today another television series under the title of “Fetneh” (‘sedition’ in Persian) is on air to publicly invade people’s privacy. All this demonstrates the constant obsession of the Iranian regime to set up accusations and indictments based on the private lives of political activists.
“Hovyat,” fourteen years ago
With the production of the series “Hovyat” in 1996, media propaganda against intellectuals and personalities critical of the Islamic Republic gained momentum. By airing confessions of imprisoned and tortured writers and intellectuals like Ali Akbar Saeedi Sirjani, Ezatollah Sahabi, and Gholam Hossein Mirza Saleh, official state television was propagating cultural and political analysis approved by intelligence officials. According to Saeed Emami, an interrogator who was killed by the intelligence ministry, these confessions were acquired from the prisoners after months of torture and solitary confinement. Mehdi Khazali, whose father Ayatollah Khazali is a supporter of Ahmadinejad’s government, was in charge of Hayyan Publications at the time and published transcripts of the series. Later he became an opponent of the regime and, after experiencing prison and interrogation himself, decided to leave the country.
Unofficial sources later revealed the producers of the series included Hossein Shariatmadari, a former employee of the Intelligence Ministry who was appointed as the executive manager of Keyhan Publications by the direct decree of the Supreme Leader, and Saeed Emami, an official in the Intelligence Ministry.
“Hovyat,” fourteen years later
The controversial June 2009 presidential election that was later declared fraudulent by some caused massive protests in Iran. Soon afterwards, street fights started and scores of journalists, reformist politicians, and civil right activists were arrested by the government. Meanwhile the media inside Iran were either shut down completely or faced severe restrictions. The critics of the Islamic Republic abroad subsequently attempted to provide the public with news and commentary on the current situation in Iran. Most of the commentators were among former reformist officials. By accusing these commentators of sedition, the Iranian regime started to produce and broadcast monographs against them on official media outlets. The documentary series “Fetneh” was one of these projects. The series “Fetneh” brought all kinds of accusations against many religious intellectuals, political activists, and former government officials who turned into critics of the regime.
In the summer of 2010, during the Fifth Congress of Islamic Republic Devotees, the head of the official radio and television agency in Iran announced the impending broadcast of a series in which the true identity of Iranian intellectuals abroad would be revealed. Zargahmi said, “On the anniversary of the June 12 election, a documentary series about the sedition of the presidential election will be launched so that people can analyze that sedition.” In the aftermath of the last presidential election, the official media has acted as the speaker for military, intelligence, security, and other governmental bodies.
According to Zarghami, this so-called “documentary” was produced and edited in ten parts to be aired in June of 2010. In this series, each and every personality who protested against electoral fraud became the target of various accusations including being paid by the intelligence services of the West. Among those accused in that series, who found their private lives as the subject of this documentary series, were: Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, an MP of the Sixth Majles; Ali Afshari, a former student activist and a member of the central council of Tahkim-e Vahdat (the Office for the Consolidation of Unity) during the reform era; Fariba Davoodi Mohajer, a member of the policy council of Tahkim-e Vahdat; Akbar Ganji, a journalist and political activist; Ataollah Mohajerani, the former Minister of Culture and Guidance of Khatami’s government; and Mohsen Sazegara, a political activist, journalist, and researcher at Iqbal University. In these documentaries, details of the private lives of personalities have been publicized in order to accuse them of insult to Islam and religion. The first part of the series depicted Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a reformist MP during Khatami’s presidency.
In this documentary, Fatemeh Haghighatjoo was accused of supporting the Mujahideen-e Khalq , a militant group fighting against the government since the early years of the 1979 Revolution. She was also accused of supporting anarchy and working for American institutions affiliated with the U.S. Department of State. Following this broadcast, Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, who resides in United States, wrote a letter to Zarghami requesting that her response be aired on state television, otherwise, she would complain to international judicial bodies. She also said she would take her complaint against the leader of Iran, Seyed Ali Khamenei, to international tribunals. The fate of Ayatollah Mohajerani, the former minister of Culture and Guidance of the reform government, was not better than Haghighatjoo’s. He too was accused of being paid by the government of the United States. And the same story was fabricated for so many others.
Even Javad Tavasolian, the husband of Shirin Ebadi, a human rights activist and a Nobel Peace Laureate, was not spared from this ordeal. He was forced to reveal private details about their marriage and declare his wife to be stubborn and suffering from mental instability. He was also forced to accuse her of having connections with foreigners and spying for the United States against her native country. He introduced her as a woman who abuses her husband. In another part of the same series, a former aide to President Khatami was accused of having secret connections based on her removal of the veil as a sign of moral instability. Fariba Davoodi Mohajer, a women’s rights activist who resides in the United States, took off her veil in an official interview with VOA television in protest of the political situation in Iran and thereby became a target of the “Fetneh” series as well.
What is as interesting as the broadcasts is how the viewers react. For example, Zahra (all family names are withheld) is a housewife. She believes the act of removing the veil is a personal choice but her religious family thinks otherwise for the veil is an important issue to them. This program made an impression on this family not because of the political issues but because of the religious issues. For example, her mother asks, “Why do people change their identity when they move out of the country?”
Nazi is a middle-aged architect who characterizes such series as hard to believe and calls them “ineffective.” She thinks the documentary “Fetneh” is so worthless that in no family gathering has there ever been any talk of it. She believes a large section of Iranian society does not trust state media and knows they seek to undermine the popularity of the reformists.
A student of political science in Tehran says he only cares to know who will be the next target of this series. He emphasizes that the production and broadcast of such films has no impact on the overall atmosphere of the country. He says, “Such reportages are very opinionated and one-sided and the state media uses a very biased approach in order to achieve its goals through lies and the manipulations of facts.”
Saba is an employee of a semi-governmental agency. In the beginning, she was surprised to watch the series because to publicize such issues through Iranian public media had been unprecedented. But he believes the current political situation is the main reason behind such programs. He explicitly says “It was obvious that the programs were based on lies, and sound bites and edited speeches clearly pointed to a set-up.” According to this young woman, almost no one in her family believed the films.
Likewise, Davood and his family think of such defaming shows as a political game with no truth to them. He explains, “We are all so distrustful of such commentaries; public discussion of such issues is for political purposes and not for the sake of clarification or public awareness.” He believes the documentaries aim to defame the political personalities of the reform movement and are not for the sake of the people, the regime, the revolution or any other issue that the government wants to attribute to the benefit of the public. Regardless of their content, he calls such programs personality assassination and elimination of rivals. He believes, “Such programs destroy the public image of Khatami, Karrubi, and Musavi, and the reformists in general through the circle of people around them, and in fact that is the main goal of state radio and television.”
According to experts, the purpose of broadcasting only some parts of the films produced by military agencies on state television is to assess the public’s opinion about the reform movement. And depending on the social and political atmosphere, the rest of the series may get the green light to run or it may be taken off the air. But what is important is the opinion of members of the public of this documentary. Many people just aren’t falling for the propaganda.
 People’s Mujahideen, listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the United States government.