Then Maziar Bahari came for me
By Hamid Reza Emadi
“A foreigner wants to talk to Press TV,” I was told by a friend over the phone. “Who is that person?” I asked as I held the phone with one hand while changing the order of news items on the rundown with the other, trying my best to multitask.
“I only know he’s a foreigner arrested during the recent unrest,” he said.
A foreigner being arrested in Tehran over post-election unrest that gripped the Iranian capital after the 2009 presidential election would definitely make headlines around the world, an extraordinary topic to cover for our international audience, I thought for a moment.
Half an hour later I and a cameraman and a driver were looking around cluelessly in a large green area for the building where the interview was set to be conducted. For a moment, I found myself in a forest with old apartment blocks scattered along an uphill road. It was the Evin detention center compound.
I was later told that the prison itself was built under the ground, and that the place I and my crew had visited was its vast yard that extended toward Tehran’ northern mountains. It took us several minutes to find the building. On the second floor, cameras were set up in a room where journalists and cameramen were waiting. “Who is the interviewee?” I asked a journalist in the room. “His name is Maziar Bahari, he’s a Newsweek journalist,” he said. I was surprised as I was expecting a foreign national.
“Where do you work?” asked a man in the room. “Press TV, it’s an English-language news channel,” I answered explanatorily. “So your questions will be in English, right?” he asked with a sense of suspicion. “Yes, it’s an English-language station and all the questions and answers will be in English,” I reiterated. “I don’t think you will be allowed to do your interview in English.” “It’s okay, we’ll go then,” I told my team to follow me out of the room. “Wait! Let me check with Hajj Agha,” said the man as we were about to leave.
Downstairs stood a man in the corridor that I guessed was Hajj Agha. “This gentleman wants to do his interview in English and there is nobody to translate their exchange for others,” the man sought Hajj Agha’s advice while pointing to me standing on the stairs. “Let them do their interview,” Hajj Agha told him after a pause. And I headed back to the room.
I and other journalists and camera crew had to wait for the next half hour for Mr. Bahari to enter the room. It was extremely hot that day and I decided to leave the room to escape from the heat. At the doorstep, I saw a man who was wearing fancy eyeglasses. Although he was being accompanied by a guard, he did not look like a prisoner; he was not wearing handcuffs.
I was the last reporter to interview Mr. Bahari as I had lost my place after I left the room at the most untimely moment. After nearly half an hour of more heat and sweat, it was finally my turn to talk to the man. “You are from Press TV?” he asked as if he had been waiting for me. “Yes,” I said politely. “Why are you here,” I asked Mr. Bahari as I played with my cufflinks. “I do not think that I’m allowed to answer that question,” he said. “Why?” I asked curiously. “Because you are not supposed to ask that question,” he answered to my surprise. “But the viewer needs to know why you have been arrested, right?”
“On Monday, June 15, 2009, I sent a report about an attack against a Basij base to UK’s Channel 4 as well as to Newsweek magazine,” he said, adding that he was arrested a few days after sending the footage. He went on to offer his analysis about how foreign media representatives had played a role in igniting violent unrest and drew comparisons between what was happening in Iran and velvet revolutions in former Soviet republics. For the next 15 minutes, Mr. Bahari kept talking and tying almost everything to ‘foreign plots’ and ‘foreign media’.
After we got back to the newsroom, we decided not to broadcast the interview. But since Mr. Bahari had become a little bit of a celebrity for the support he had garnered from some western leaders, we decided to air a 10-second sound bite in which he talked about his arrest, and left out the analysis part. Since his release and return to the UK, Mr. Bahari has repeatedly said the same 10-second sentence in his interviews with global media outlets. But when it came to Press TV airing the exact same thing, he filed a complaint against the channel, claiming he gave the interview under duress!
Mr. Bahari was released on humanitarian grounds nearly four months after he was arrested. Iranian authorities said they released him on bail in order to be able to join his wife and newborn child. He flew to Britain and, months later, launched his money-making campaign. He started lunching with British leaders, including the foreign secretary and the prime minister, and giving lectures at anti-Iran events, making up stories about medieval torture practices.
Mr. Bahari claims he had put his blindfold on his knees during the interview for me to see it and realize that he was under duress. He has also told international media that he was reading off a script given to him by his interrogator and that I was consulting his interrogator before asking questions. Mr. Bahari has repeated the same lies over and over since 2009. But I’m sure he has had a recurring nightmare haunting him during all this time; what if Press TV releases the entire footage and all of my lies are revealed? What if my child asks me why I’ve been lying for so long? What if Jon Stewart, who’s trusted me, gets pissed off when he sees the actual footage and realizes that he’s been making a movie based on fantasy, not reality?
In that room on that hot summer day were no blindfolds, nor were there any handcuffs, scripts or ghost interrogators hidden behind the curtains.
Mr. Bahari managed to secure his own release while many others remained in detention, by fabricating stories and analyses against those whose rights he now claims to be defending. And ever since he was released, he’s been trying to justify what he did; desperately struggling to prove that he was not a coward who sold out his friends. Mr. Bahari may be able to trick Hollywood producers into funding his project, but he can’t fool himself.
He knows he’s a coward and will have to live with it.