By Jila Baniyaghoob *
Wednesday, 13 January 2010
Mr Judge Pir-Abbas!
A few days ago, I had a phone call from prison from my spouse, Bahman Ahmadi-Amouie, who informed me of the sentence you have issued for him: ‘Seven years and four months penal detention and 34 lashes of the whip’ for a journalist!
To be honest, it’s become so common to hear of such sentences being issued by you and your colleagues that we would have been surprised if you had issued a different sentence.
Even more strangely, a few days before Bahman’s court appearance, a young relative of his rang me to say she had heard that the Revolutionary Court had acquitted several defendants. Sounding very worried, she said, ‘I’m afraid Bahman too might be acquitted.’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘that’s nothing to be afraid of.’
‘Don’t you understand,’ she shouted at me, ‘that if Bahman’s acquitted he and the whole family are going to be discredited? At a time when all political prisoners are being given heavy sentences, if Bahman is acquitted, or even if he’s given a light sentence, it would mean he has been cooperating with the interrogators; that he’s not as strong as we have so far believed he is. You have no idea what a washout I’ll be at the university if Bahman’s given a light sentence. When Saied Laylaz, Ahmad Zeidabadi and Abdollah Mo’meni have been given such heavy sentences, anyone who’s not given a sentence will be a total washout.’
We have a strange country, Mr Judge, don’t we? A country in which being acquitted of a charge will lead to shame. The spouse of another prisoner who had been waiting for your sentence had told her husband, ‘Shame on you if you’re given less than six years in jail.’
It was not a promise of the revolution which our fathers made in 1979 that in the state that would result from it, long prison sentences would be a mark of honor and innocence a cause for shame.
I must say right here that one of the threats used by some interrogators against the prisoners has been to say: ‘If we decide to ruin you, we’ll arrange for you to be acquitted.’ Honestly, why should even some interrogators believe that being declared innocent would bring shame?
I am writing to say that the sentence that you issued did not surprise me for a moment, but I was shocked by one of the reasons you gave for declaring Bahman guilty.
You know that Bahman’s devoted lawyer, Ms Farideh Ghayrat, had said in her arguments in his defense that ‘my client is an independent and critical journalist. As a professional journalist, it his duty to view all phenomena critically. That is why he not only criticized the Ahmadinejad administration during its (first) four years, but that he also repeatedly criticized the former President Khatami and his administration. Bahman is the author of The Political Economy of the Islamic Republic, part of which is a critique of Mr Mousavi’s administration while he was Prime Minister.’
I learned that in your ruling to convict Bahman, you had referred to the same statement by his lawyer, with an argument to the effect that ‘his being critical of all governments shows that he is tendentious.’
Mr Judge Pir-Abbas
Do you really consider it a crime to be critical? Do you know that the main task of journalists is to monitor power and critique it? By shedding light on the society’s dark corners, journalists try to help improve matters. Today’s world has accepted the evident principle that a society that does not believe in the progressive principle of critique and does not tolerate being critiqued by others will not be a dynamic society. You must have heard it repeatedly that if refusing to being critiqued by others turns into a culture in a society, that society will have no choice by dogmatism and regress.
I do not want to condemn you. I do not even want to accuse you of being unfair. I have learned through the years not to condemn other persons so easily, even if the person concerned is the judge who has tried my spouse and given him a heavy sentence. I know that the problem is more deeply-rooted than your personal view of journalists and the profession of journalism. It is not such a great fault of yours that you do not know the features of professional journalism!
For years, journalists have been shouting out loud that journalists should be tried in court in the presence of a jury; in the presence of people who know what journalism is made of; who know that it is a journalist’s professional duty to examine everything critically; who know that the students of journalism learn at university that they should view the statesmen critically, rather than deferentially.
You might say that Bahman’s charges were not related to journalism. But were they really not, Mr Judge? All your arguments against Bahman were based on his professional performance. You have accused Bahman of conspiring against national security. The only reason given for that charge was that he had edited the website, Khordad-e Now. Is the editorship of a website anything other than journalism?
Publicity against the state, conspiring against and insulting the president, etc., are different labels used by the Revolutionary Court’s examining magistrates these days to describe the journalist activities of Bahman and other imprisoned journalists. Isn’t it so?
I know that even if I fill many long pages to describe critique and a society open to critique, it will not serve a purpose because you will probably say ‘these are souvenirs from the West’.
But I have heard that you are a totally religious person. I will therefore remind you of a well-known saying of the revered Prophet of Islam in praise of critique: ‘Throw dust into the faces of flatterers and sycophants.’
For the same reason, instead of quoting what international thinkers have said about the necessity of critique and the need for societies to be open to critique, I shall remind you of the sayings of one of your friends at the seminary, describing the critical approach of Mr Mostafa Khomeini, the son of the late Leader of the Revolution:
‘The columns of science are enlivened and refreshed by the ivies of critique. The heart of science beats with the blood of critique. Unknown shores are explored with the vessel of critique. And the law of the emergence of superior ideas takes shape under the rule of critique. Mostafa Khomeini would critique everyone and everything all the time, for he knew that critique is the essence of humanity. Critique knows no bounds.’ (From the article, ‘Principled critique from Mostafa Khomeini’s point of view, Howzehnet website.)
You may not care much for the principles of independent journalism. But what about Imam Ali’s Letter No 53 to his administrators, calling on them to create an environment in which people would speak and critique easily, frankly and transparently, without any worries that this may lead to dangerous consequences for them (Topical Analysis of Nahjol-Balaghah, Mostafa Delshad.)
You may think it is the West that has been teaching journalists to be critical of power! What about Imam Ali’s view that ‘a society devoid of the culture of participation, advice and critique will be bereft of compassion and blessings’? Or that ‘A people who do not advise each other and do not like those who give advice will lack blessings’ (Ghorar al-Hekam, vol. 2, p 267)?
If you regard a journalist’s critical approach as a sign of his being tendentious, in the world of journalism, such an approach signals honor, independence and professionalism. It is the mark of a journalist free from all political and factional ties, trying to perform his professional duty, because he is a journalist, an independent journalist.
Translated by Hossein Shahidi