Transcript

PBS Wide Angle: 'Red Lines and Deadlines'

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Taghi Amirani
Filmmaker
Wednesday, August 3, 2005; 11:00 AM

Twenty-six years after the Islamic revolution, Iran is struggling for political reform. "Red Lines and Deadlines" is a behind-the-scenes look at the young reporters at one of Iran's new pro-reform newspapers as they grapple to report the news without incurring the "blade of censorship" that is an ever-present threat in Iran today. Shargh is one of the leading reformist papers and has built a loyal readership among Iran's intellectuals, opinion-makers, politicians and the young. This update features footage of Shargh reporters covering Iran's recent, controversial presidential elections.

Filmmaker Taghi Amirani was online Wednesday, Aug. 3, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the film, "Red Lines and Deadlines," which airs Tuesday, Aug. 2, at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings).

PBS Wide Angle: 'Red Lines and Deadlines'.

The transcript follows.

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Wheaton, Md.: Since the government of Iran (and other Islamic governments) claim they speak for the vast majority of their populations, then what do they have to fear from a free press? It is obvious that, if the people had freedom of press, they would be critical of the government and the Islamic rulers know it.

Taghi Amirani: Thank you for your observation. It appears you have answered your own question.

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Beijing, China: Was there freedom of the press when the Pahlavi Dynasty was in power?

Taghi Amirani: No.

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Bethesda, Md.: Unfortunately I missed the program last night. Would you please provide a brief description of the status of journalism in Iran?

Taghi Amirani: The fortunes of the reformist press in Iran is closely tied to the fortunes of the reform movement. Sometimes they advance, sometimes they have to retreat.

There are limits on what journalists can write, censorship rules they call "red lines", which they can't cross. The film explores these issues by profiling Shargh, Iran's leading reformist newspaper. If you look at your local PBS station listing you may find the film will re air shortly.

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Rome, Italy: If the Ayatollahs are really concerned about the adverse effects of a free press, why don't they just buy up all the news outlets like we do in Western countries?

Taghi Amirani: Good point. Please send Mr Berlusconi over as soon as possible. But seriously, I do wonder about how free the press really is in the West, say in the US?

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Arlington, Va.: I watched the show last night and loved it. As a journalist just starting her career I found it inspirational. I was surprised at the number of women in the paper. Do the women there have relative freedom to work as reporters or do they have obstacles they have to face from the government because they are women?

Taghi Amirani: I'm glad you like the film and picked up on the number of women journalists at Shargh. While women in Iran have limitations in their lives, I find their achievements in spite of those limitations are little known in the West. Therefore your surprise. As for female journalists: it's six of one, half of a dozen of the other. In some areas they do even better than men because of being women. Good luck with your career.

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Knoxville, Tenn.: I have heard from others that Iranians have a "superiority" complex. How does Iran view its neighborhood with this complex.

Taghi Amirani: Iran sees itself as different to the rest of the Middle East. And some see Iran as superior. Others just don't like Iran being lumped together with the rest of the Arab nations by the less geographically aware. Due to its size, its sensitive geopolitical position and historical heritage, Iran sees itself as a Middle East superpower.

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Re: women journalists: "As for female journalists: it's six of one, half of a dozen of the other. "

I'm sorry, I didn't understand what you meant by that, can you explain?

Taghi Amirani: Some things are better because they're women, some things worse. It evens out in the end

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Washington, D.C.: I wonder how unique this concept of "Red Lines" is to the Iranian press. As "free" as we would like to describe our own press in the West, it is pretty clear that there are topics of discussion that are clearly taboo as well, though the dancing around them seems to be less heavy-handed and more nuanced.

Taghi Amirani: Couldn't agree more.

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Fairfax, Va.: I agree that "press freedom" has become somewhat of a myth here in the U.S. For example, how widely was it reported that the CIA determined that Mr. Ahmadinejad was not the man in the photo from 1979? Regardless of one's opinion of him, it was a resolution to a story that initially received a lot of press attention, and I only read about it in a Farsi blog.

Taghi Amirani: Again I couldn't agree more. The state of "free press" in the US is worrying.

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Arlington, Tex.: Hello Mr. Amirani, I agree with your skepticism about the "freedom" of the Western press. I feel that geopolitical events of last 4 years have had a huge negative effect on journalism, with impartiality largely replaced by emotion and biases. Today each country's media acts like a cheerleader for that nation. Do you agree?

Taghi Amirani: I find it very amusing and disturbing that a film about the freedom of the press in Iran has triggered so much comment about the freedom of the press in the US!

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Are you familiar with Rep. Curt Weldon's book "Countdown to Terror". If so, I would appreciate knowing if you believe his source "Ali" at least sounds credible. If you are not familiar with the book, what are your reactions to Ali's claims that Ayatollah Khameni has stated that all internal opposition to the Iranian government should be repressed so an American-led uprising can never occur against the Iranian government?

Taghi Amirani: Not having the read the book I am afraid it would be unwise for me to comment

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Knoxville, Tenn.: Greetings. I am a Pakistani-American. Can you tell me about Iranian attitudes towards their neighbors specifically Pakistan and Turkey and what they like or don't like about them?

Taghi Amirani: Hard to tell as this is a subject I have not tackled in my visits to Iran. There was a question earlier about Iranian "superiority" which may be worth looking at

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Maryland: Do "underground" publications exist in Iran?

Taghi Amirani: Probably. Sorry I can't be more helpful.

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Alabama: Great film. Obviously the newspapers face political challenges. What economic challenges do they face? I imagine the cost of ink and paper is just as high in Iran as it is here. Do ad revenues cover those costs? And can papers (assuming they don't run afoul of the government) establish themselves and last for years, or do they close after a fairly short period of time?

Taghi Amirani: Unless subsidised by the government papers have to pay their own way with ad revenues and investor backing. Shargh uses high quality paper and printing process. It also attracts big advertisers who know they hit good target customers through it.

Thank you for your compliment on the film

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Maryland: Has Internet access supplanted the need for newspapers in Iran?;

Taghi Amirani: Most likely.

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London, Ontario: Would you like to comment on the sophistication of Iranian censors? I remember reading about an Iranian filmmaker whose film was originally approved, but later banned because his message wasn't originally interpreted as subversive. I believe it had to do with a prisoner escaping from prison and evading capture by masquerading as an Islamic cleric.

Taghi Amirani: The film is called The Lizard. I cannot comment on how sophisticated the Iranian censorship machine is. The Lizard WAS approved and later banned as you read.

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Fairfax, Va.: Unfortunately, I missed the program--I do hope PBS will rebroadcast it soon.

Three questions: Are blogs really as prominent among Iranian progressives as they are made out to be in the Western alternative press? How effective has the government been at censoring the Internet? Also, do you fear that the ostensible loosening of social restrictions has had the effect of making the problem of political repression seem less urgent?

Taghi Amirani: Iran is reported to have one of the largest blogging communities in the world. Filtering of Internet sites does occur. I cannot give an informed answer to your last question.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: There are conflicting reports that Iran is within months ago, to ten years away, from developing nuclear weapons. Do you have any sense on how far long the Iranian nuclear weapons program is towards its goal of creating a nuclear weapon?

Taghi Amirani: No idea at all. Sorry can't be more helpful

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Maryland: Can one get a journalism degree in Iran? It sounds farfetched on the face of it.

Taghi Amirani: most journalists in Iran, the really good ones, learn on the job. they love it and do it for free to start with. There IS a school of journalism as well.

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Bethesda, Md.: I guess we Americans assume the press in Iran would be suppressed. Seeing that it's not much better than our own makes us nervous.

Taghi Amirani: There seems to be a debate taking shape among those who have logged on about the freedom of the press in the US. I'm glad Red Lines and Deadlines is generating this kind of interest

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Munich, Germany: After reading about the dissatisfaction of the conservative mullahs and the will of the Iranian people for political, cultural, and social reform in Iran by the people on the street, it was a surprise to read of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election victory. What happened to the so called "Sleeping Elephant" that was supposed to be the Iranian Street?

That said, do you think that the people at SHARGH will come under pressure to present a more conservative view of events after Ahmadinejad's victory? After all, Ahmadinejad and the mullahs must feel that the election results are a justification of their stringent ideology, including censorship of unwanted information.

Taghi Amirani: Even people at Shargh believe it's too soon to say which way the press will go after the election. so I will wait and see with them.

Some argue the Iranian Street spoke: they voted for Ahmadinejad.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Was an all-Iranian camera crew really a necessity? Don't outsiders sometimes have more insights into a country?

Taghi Amirani: I WAS an outsider. I had lived outside Iran for 29 years. I had the added advantage of knowing Iran and the language and knowing Iran from the outside. Best of both worlds. Outsiders who do their homework and don't settle for easy cliches do of course have more insights into the country. And there are a handful of those among Western journalists who work in or on Iran. the rest are either lazy or ignorant or have an agenda.

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Olney, Md.: How do the numbers of reformist papers compare to the number of staunchly pro-government papers?

Taghi Amirani: Very few reformist newspapers. A handful.

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Washington, D.C.: Are all Iranian newspapers for-profit operations?

Taghi Amirani: I am afraid my information is not complete on this. I think they are. Don't quote me on it.

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Alabama: "I agree that "press freedom" has become somewhat of a myth here in the U.S."

To compare American press freedom to Iranian press freedom is, I think, highly insulting to the journalists profiled in the film.

People, your feelings about the government, whether pro or con, can be aired here without fear of repression. You're not going to lose your job or get tossed into prison if you don't like the current administration. If you don't like the media, you can read or write on a blog and not have to suffer filtering from a central authority. And you have plenty of opportunities to find media outlets that share your viewpoint.

These are freedoms people in many other countries don't enjoy, and to suggest that American expression is somehow restricted is utterly shallow, and offensive to Third World journalists who courageously carry on in the face of real restrictions and real oppression.

Taghi Amirani: Yes

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Detroit, Mich.: Hello, what is the credibility of Shargh amongst Iranians themselves? Reformists in Middle East frequently get tagged as "American" or "Israeli" agents. Does your appeal extend beyond the liberals/reformers?

Taghi Amirani: Shargh has a high percentage of educated liberal intellectuals among its readers. That is its chosen target readership. By doing this some believe Shargh is not connecting to a large portion of the Iranian population. This is something they are now aware of, having misjudged the "mood" of the nation in the recent elections.

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Bethesda, Md.: I was amazed by your answer that you do not know if there is an underground press in Iran. I did not see the PBS show but if you studied the press in Iran how could you not have seen, or not seen, and underground press?

Also, to compare America's press with Iran's must be a joke. I cannot see Iran having headlines in its front page as we see in The Washington Post today. For example, has anyone in the Iranian "administration" been under a judicial investigation that the press is reporting? Its evident by Iran's political structure that the Guardian Council exists to suppress anything, not just the press, to "preserve" the revolution. It all is very familiar, just not as obvious since other "revolutions" that created entities to suppress the population and press occurred in other cultures: Russia, Germany and China. America's revolution placed a free press on top of it's agenda and over 200 years later its still up there.

Taghi Amirani: In making Red Lines and Deadlines we focused on one newspaper and its work. We were not making a film about press in general in Iran that may include underground press. If you feel that's a failure on my part to tell you about the existence of underground press then I stand guilty as charged.

Re freedom of the press in the US: it was Americans joining this web cast who introduced the subject and made comparisons. assuming they know their own press better than I do, I simply agreed. I am glad you joined the debate to put them right.

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Sacramento, Calif.: Which Western journalists should we follow to get an accurate and fair account of Iran?

Taghi Amirani: I'll dig out the names. There are one or two Italian ones. Il Manifesto and La Republica. No good if you don't speak Italian. A couple from San Francisco. One from the Christian Science Monitor. Regarding the Middle East in general I cannot recommend Robert Fisk of The Independent enough.

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Rockville, Md.: In making this film, was there any concern that the government might not like it, and there might be a backlash against the paper? (I'm thinking about how the Russian government won't let ABC report in Russia after they interviewed a Chechen leader, of course that's a different country and different circumstance but journalism seems more fragile than ever around the world).

Taghi Amirani: The paper is very good at knowing how far it can go and what it can say in print or in front of a documentary camera. Tap dancing around the "red lines" is part of their daily routine.

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Washington, D.C.: I recall an episode of 60 Minutes I watched back in the 1980's in which Dan Rather interviewed the Washington bureau chief for the Soviet newspaper Pravda. The piece was decidedly one-sided, but an answer to a question by the Russian gentleman was particularly telling.

The question had to do with how the Soviets could claim that they had a free press when their news outlets were all controlled by Communists. He replied by stating (and I remember it seeming comical at the time) that U.S. news outlets were all owned by Capitalists and that, being so, could not be counted on for objectivity either.

In this age of media consolidation, it appears his statements were prophetic.

Taghi Amirani: I am no longer going to comment on the state of US press as I have been told off by another questioner. Please see his reply. I will let you good people discuss among yourselves how truly free American media really is.

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Ottawa, Canada: Do you think that anyone in Iran will ever be held responsible for the death of Zahra Kazemi, the Canadian photojournalist who died while in police custody in Iran?

Taghi Amirani: No idea. Sorry.

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Taghi Amirani: Thank you for all your questions. I hope you found at least some of them useful.

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