Why foreign reporters in Iran are becoming an endangered species
Brussels — The telephone in my hotel room in Tehran rang at 6 in the morning. It was quickly clear that I was in trouble. ''Come down immediately,'' said the voice at the other end of the line.
In the hotel lobby stood an Iranian plainclothes security agent, flanked by two Revolutionary Guards armed with submachine guns. ''Pack your belongings and follow us,'' they said.
A few hours later, I was on a flight bound for Frankfurt, West Germany, without any further explanation. It was Dec. 19 - five days after I had arrived in Iran with an official visa.
Relations between foreign journalists and Iranian revolutionary authorities under their leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, have been going from bad to worse. Only two of the major international news agencies, Agence France Presse and Reuters, the British agency, maintain permanent bureaus in Tehran.
Those journalists limit their coverage to very sketchy reports on political and economic life. They also transmit military communiques and summaries of official speeches. With the exception of one or two of the Japanese news media, no international paper or television station has a permanent correspondent in Tehran.
Meanwhile, Iranian leaders pay close attention to their image abroad and at home. Major European and American shortwave radio services broadcast programs in Farsi that can be picked up in Tehran. Translations of the stories published in newspapers such as The Christian Science Monitor are broadcast throughout Iran by clandestine radio stations based in Iraq.
Iranian authorities say foreign correspondents are biased against their revolution.
''They always underestimate the popular support for the Islamic Republic,'' an official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
Iranian leaders regularly accuse the Western media of playing down their military successes on the battlefield: ''US and European reporters should refrain from basing their stories on information they get from Western-educated people living in the upper part of Tehran.''
More recently, the Iranians reproached the international press for not paying enough attention to the heavy civilian casualties they suffered in recent Iraqi air attacks against densely populated neighborhoods.
''You guys,'' said the ministry official, ''never understood the Islamic nature of this revolution. You always analyze events through your concept of conservatism, liberalism, rightism, and leftism. There are no such (things) here. You believe in the rule of the majority, while we think the society should be ruled by God.''
''Should 90 percent of the Iranian population vote for the liberalization of drinking alcohol,'' an interpreter adds, ''the government wouldn't do it, because it's against God's will. When in Iran, Western journalists must change their way of thinking.''
Western journalists who recently visited Iran say they enjoyed almost no freedom and were constantly watched by narrow-minded security agents. They say government bureaucrats are closed to any kind of discussion or criticism and often fail to help reporters understand the positive aspects of the revolution.
Contact with dissidents is impossible. Iranian officials also prefer to deal with reporters who have no previous experience in Iran. This makes these correspondents completely dependent on official guides and translators.
Relations between Western journalists and Iranian Muslims have not always been bad. During the months before the January 1979 revolution, clergymen were very happy to be interviewed and even used Western correspondents to convey their message to the world. The Shah often asked British and American diplomats to curb the activities of journalists from their countries.
This romance turned sour when the foreign press loudly criticized the excesses of the new regime. At that time, entries into Iran were unrestricted. Now journalists who want to visit the Islamic Republic must apply for a visa. No visa is issued without permission from the press bureau at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran. This can take weeks or months.
On arrival, every correspondent must refer to the Ministry of Islamic Guidance to obtain a press card. Having an officially approved visa does not mean a press card is automatically issued. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is trying to break Iran's isolation, often pressures the Ministry of Islamic Guidance to allow more journalists in.
After one day in the country with an approved visa from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I was told by the Ministry of Islamic Guidance that I would not receive my press card. This, despite the fact the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had invited me on a prearranged program to cover the Iran-Iraq war.
The Guidance Ministry, which is in charge of information on the basis of Islamic values, is generally very tough in its judgments about foreign reporters. Civil servants there keep files about every journalist who regularly writes about Iran. Articles and transcripts of radio programs from all over the world are translated and scrutinized by specialists who rate them as positive, unbiased, or negative.
Even with a press card, working in Iran is not easy. Few Iranian leaders speak foreign languages. When granting interviews, most senior clergymen insist their words be reproduced without being edited. There are two daily papers in English, but they consist only of translated dispatches from the national press agency Islamic Republic News Agency.
Tours to war-torn areas are organized from time to time, especially when the Iranian troops launch a successful offensive. Journalists are allowed to talk to rank-and-file soldiers, but contact has been limited by the soldiers' increasing aggression toward journalists. The arguments are always the same: ''Why don't you tell the truth? Why do you distort facts?''
Security agents interrupted a conversation I was having with a group of Revolutionary Guards who were detailing a recent offensive.
Journalists also complain that because of Iranian fighters' beliefs about death, the soldiers think nothing of taking their guests to very dangerous places. (Shiite Muslims believe that if they die in the name of Islam they will be ensured a place in paradise.) But correspondents say that Iranian war communiques are generally more accurate than those from Iraq.
Iranian society has always been very closed. During centuries of dictatorships, Iranians learned to conceal their opinions from anyone not directly related to their inner famil circle.
Journalists sometimes must spend hours talking with a political leader before knowing his exact ideas. This is why foreign observers always find it so difficult to assess the real trends of Iranian society.
Rhe Shah had spread a glaze of Western culture on a centureis-old civilization. When this glaze was wiped off, the West discovered a culture and a regime whose values are difficult to cope with.