By Jay Sullivan and Alison Huang.
Maziar Bahari is an Iranian-Canadian journalist, filmmaker, and human rights activist. He was imprisoned by the Iranian government, under charges that he was a revolutionary. His story is the subject of the Jon Stewart film, Rosewater. Bahari is a New York Times best selling author.
DPR: You’ve been involved with some cool public artwork in New York City. Could you talk a little bit more about the “Journalism is Not a Crime” movement and some of the things you’re doing with it?
Bahari: Journalism is Not A Crime came from the idea that when I came out of prison I realized that there was an amazing campaign for my release, and also as soon as I came out my employer provided psychological help, legal help, and every kind of support I needed, and I knew that most of my colleagues in Iran and other parts of the world don’t have that. No one knows their names; they’re just numbers. So, I thought that it would be good to have a project to help them in different ways if I can. One of the aspects of the project is legal help: we have two lawyers working with journalists—if they have any questions regarding confiscation of their properties [and] if the families of journalists have any questions they can contact those lawyers. We have therapists online, and if people have questions they can go to them. Another thing we need is study of psychological well-being. We’ve had South African and Canadian behavior scientists work with many doctors around the word.
The third part is the publicity campaign of the project. The not the crime project has two different campaigns within it. One is for journalists and one is for the bahá’í. It’s the biggest religious minority in Iran, and the members of that community are deprived of their citizen rights, especially the rights to higher education. So we have asked different street artists and world class artists from different part of the world to join the campaign. The first phase was in New York during the UN General assembly and we had about 12-13 all different walls. What was especially interesting to me was we had 4 walls in Harlem, and the way that the community responded to the campaign was amazing because when we talked about discrimination, when we talked about the deprivation of rights, they really identified with it and they really got it. We had one mural in Brooklyn of all places vandalized but in Harlem it was very interesting. People were bringing food to the artists and supporting them. It’s a cool campaign and we’re starting to release videos if you go to Instagram. They’ve released the first videos on the campaign and we have more videos released every day.
DPR: You covered the 2009 Iranian Presidential Election and filmed the protests that followed, and your work is often known for its unique perspective on modern Iranian culture. In hindsight were all your journalistic pursuits worth the jail time and if you could change anything would you?
Bahari: When I was an unwilling participant in a scenario, the reason for my arrest was they wanted to teach a lesson to a large group of filmmakers and journalists in Iran, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I was making a living from working as a journalist. I was traveling and working all the time. I was trying to work within the framework of the laws in Iran, and I had friends in the government and I had friends in the opposition so I wasn’t do anything really risky. But if someone decides what you’re doing is wrong and has a plan for you, it’s very difficult to say that it’s worth doing because you just don’t know what you’re doing. I was never foolhardy;
I worked in Iraq for 3 years and those were much more dangerous assignments but I had 6 bodyguards so I never took uncalculated risks. I always tried to know where I was going. I did my homework.
No, I don’t think any risk is worth taking. If you don’t know what you’re eating it’s not good to eat it. If you don’t know what’s happening when you’re going one direction you shouldn’t go there. It’s the same thing with journalism.
DPR: So along those lines for journalists that do face war such as covering the US invasion of Iraq or journalists that do face that kind of pressure–the ones that have been attacked or threatened– what do you think the journalist’s role or response should be in those situations and how do you think the public should stand on those kinds of issues?
Bahari: You cannot really determine what a journalist’s job is. If you really insist on telling a journalist what they should do, I think they should inform people, they should give information to people and through that information they have to serve the public’s interest. It is very hard to say how to inform or how to serve the public’s interest—that is why you see the divergence of views. It is very difficult to say what the role of a journalist is, but I think ideally the journalist should be able to inform and serve public interest and that should be determined by common sense. But I think we’re going through a very volatile time in history of journalism because public interest is changing and journalists are becoming more opinionated.
DPR: You talked about how the Iran Nuclear Agreement might create more restrictions, and the environment might get a little tougher in Iran. How do you see this evolving in the coming years?
Bahari: It’s very difficult to say. But what is going to happen as the Iran government becomes more confident in its ability to survive and its ability to rule, it’s going to try to control the situation inside the country as much as possible. That’ll inevitably result in more restrictions for journalists because the government has done something it said it would never do and that is shaking hands with the Great Satan. So, they do not want to lose face and they’re trying to control public opinion. As we talked about, the public opinion is not shaped through traditional media anymore. It is shaped mainly through social media. The government cannot control it and the government doesn’t know how to control it. So the most expedient thing for them to do is to go back to the same old methods of suppression—imprisonment, torture, beatings people.
DPR: People describe your work both in journalism and filmmaking as having a unique perspective. What is your major influence?
Bahari: I don’t know if I can say what my major influence is, but I think I’ve tried in the beginning to interpret the Iranian narrative to the Westerners, Americans and British audiences. Maybe I did something successfully, I don’t know what happened. At this point as someone who was brutalized by the Iranian government, was a victim of human rights [abuses], I think my main responsibility was to give nuance to the discussion about Iran, not to fall victim to the people who want to make enemies of Iran. But at the same time to warn the media for the Iranian government that because of your anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism that you should not defend the Iranian government. Yes, there are problems with your foreign policy, but that does not justify what the Iranian government is doing with itself.
DPR: So you spent a lot of time with Jon Stewart during the production of Rosewater. What’s your favorite story about him and the work you were doing?
Bahari: My favorite story, one that solidified our friendship, when he showed me the rough cut of Rosewater for the first time. We worked on the script and the film was being shot every day, but I went away and he was doing the rough draft of the film for two months or so. I remember when I was watching the film—I watched it on my own in the editing room—and I saw him walking his dog, and he was really nervous about my reaction to the film. His dog has only 3 legs and he always jokes that before that it had 4 legs. I could see that he was nervous about my reaction. That was a very interesting moment in our relationship.