Speech by executive director of MEFD at workshop on media and civil society

 
 

MEFD logoLondon, MEFD – On Saturday 21st May 2016, Mosa Zahed, executive director of Middle East Forum for Development (MEFD), attended an international workshop on media and civil society in the Middle East at Cambridge House, London, which was organised by Ahwaz Human Rights Organisation (AHRO) and Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization. Zahed’s speech can be seen here: 

 

“Prior to the Iranian anti-monarchical revolution of 1979, when Khomeini was in exile for 15 years, he and his followers did not hesitate to use the then modern day technology in order to steer events in Iran against the repressive regime of the Shah. Khomeini recognised the power of technology and thus recorded his messages on cassette tapes and video tapes which his followers would smuggle into Iran, distributing them among the people in the hope of achieving grassroots mobilisation for his cause.

 

30 years after the establishment of Khomeini’s Islamic Republic of Iran, a new generation of Iranians returned to the streets using technology as a means of mobilisation, but this time targeting the very institution of Velayat-e Faqih put into practice by Khomeini in 1979. The social protests across Iran, which erupted following the disputed presidential election results in 2009, came to be known as a wave for freedom and democratisation.

 

As we all know, press freedom in Iran is a mere mirage. Reporters Without Borders ranks the country in its Press Freedom Index of 2016 169th among the 180 countries and Iran has been designated as the world’s biggest prison for women journalists. Only last month, an Iranian revolutionary court handed long prison terms to four journalists on charges of having acted against national security.

 

Moreover, the Iranian authorities continue to censor news and analysis and effectively decide what newspapers and magazines may and may not cover. Many journalists subsequently apply self-censorship when they work on sensitive issues out of fear of repercussions. Civil society activists suffer similarly from stringent restrictions imposed by the authorities.

 

Last Wednesday the notorious judge Abolghasem Salavati, who heads the 15th division of Tehran Islamic Revolutionary Court, sentenced Narges Mohammadi, who is the vice president of the Defenders of Human Rights Center in Iran and a renowned human rights and anti-death penalty activist, to 16 years in prison for her activities against the death penalty, ‘assembly and spreading propaganda against the state’ and ‘acting against the national security of Iran’.

 

In such a repressive environment, it is extremely difficult for the media and human rights defenders to operate. Therefore, during the 2009 protests mobile phones synchronised with social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, played a crucial role in grassroots mobilisation and in crowd reporting, disclosing to the world the authorities’ brutality against peaceful protesters across the country.

 

Neda Agha-Soltan’s death at the hands of a member of the Basij militia, which was recorded with a mobile phone camera and distributed online, provided Iran’s struggle for freedom and democracy with a face as the grisly footage went viral globally. Neda’s brutal death resembles the reality of those who take action against the Iranian regime and it instigated solidarity from millions of people across the globe. It even, unusually, forced the U.S. President Barack Obama to speak out, stipulating that ‘those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history’.

 

Modern day technology enabled human rights activists to expose, through detailed testimonies, torture and sexual harassment of men and women who were arrested during the 2009 protests and detained at the Kahrizak detention centre in southern Tehran.

 

The uncovered abuses at the hands of the authorities were so severe that it pressured some senior figures in the Islamic Republic to outrightly condemn the practices. Indeed, as the Iranian authorities got away with the massacre of thousands of political prisoners in the space of a few months during the summer of 1988 without sparking global outrage or condemnation, Ali Khamenei was in 2009 confronted with a bitter reality, namely that getting away with atrocities would not be as easy in this digital era compared to previous decades.

 

In our activities as a non-governmental organisation, we have always aimed to be the voice of those who have sacrificed their lives for the values of freedom, democracy and human rights.

 

Through our advocacy projects we have strived to encourage governments across the European Union to intensify business ties with repressive countries only on condition that improvement of the human rights situation could be observed. This has not been an easy task in an environment of realpolitik which naturally has a demoralising effect on people’s aspiration for building a better society in countries where fundamental rights are bitterly crushed.

 

During the 2009 social protests in Iran, the people cried out ‘Obama ya ba oona ya ba ma’ which translates into ‘Obama you are either with us or with them’. For now, as western countries fall over each other trying to secure lucrative contracts with the Iranian regime following the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, it appears that the international community has quickly forgotten the Iranian people’s aspiration for democratic change and the misery of the Syrian people, caused by the Iranian regime’s expansionist policies in the region.

 

As the policies of repression, torture and executions continue unabatedly and the Iranian authorities continue to destabilise the region, imperilling global peace and security, now is the time to uphold our principles instead of compromising them in the interest of short term economic gains.

 

I would like to end my speech with an excerpt from Hashem Shaabani’s letter to his family prior to his execution in 2014 following a grossly unfair trial.

 

In the letter he states that: ‘I can’t ignore the hideous crimes against Ahwazis, perpetrated by the Iranian authorities, particularly arbitrary and unjust executions. I have tried to defend the legitimate right that every people in this world should have, which is the right to live freely with full civil rights. With all these miseries and tragedies, I have never used a weapon to fight these atrocious crimes except the pen’

 

Let us salute those who dedicated their lives to uphold the rights of others and let us renew our commitments to honour the aspirations of the people of Iran who continue to suffer every day under religious tyranny.

 

I thank you all”

 

Mosa Zahed (London, 21 May 2016)

Executive Director

Middle East Forum for Development

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