Frances Harrison was the BBC bureau chief in Tehran for three years, during which time Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime instated a harsh crackdown
on journalists and Iranian citizens. Harrison completed her post recently and reflects on her time there.
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BOB GARFIELD: It's been a busy summer for Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He's been dealing with the global outcry over his nation's nuclear future, denying accusations that Iran is fueling violence in Iraq and ignoring U.S. protests over the detention of possibly four American citizens on espionage charges. Domestically, his government has imposed a crackdown on political and social freedoms that's been called the harshest in 30 years.
The BBC's Frances Harrison arrived in Tehran when the reformists were still in office before Ahmadinejad's government took power. She spent the last three years reporting from Iran. Having completed her assignment, now she's back in London ready to talk about her time as BBC's Tehran bureau chief.
Harrison says that when conservatives gained control in Iran, many things changed, including some reporters' wardrobes. FRANCES HARRISON: My colleagues here, women journalists, immediately started wearing black to go to press conferences because they feared they wouldn't be allowed in otherwise.
There's been a lot more in terms of social and political crackdown probably in the last six months to a year. Since April we've seen a pretty serious crackdown on un-Islamic dress as it's viewed by the regime and a lot of students being put in jail, particularly recently, and anybody who's in any sense a critic of the regime from within feeling much more endangered now and having court cases, suspended sentences passed against them and so on. BOB GARFIELD: Is there any role for a free press, domestic or foreign, in Iran? FRANCES HARRISON: What we've seen in recent months is more of a crackdown by the government, sometimes, of course, interestingly, the judiciary reopening newspapers afterwards, but the vestiges of the reformist media are facing more and more problems. They're trying to change the directors of various news agencies who are pro-reformist, and the foreign media, of course, depend a lot on local sources, on what's printed in the local papers. That space is tightening pretty rapidly. BOB GARFIELD: In the West sometimes it's very difficult to do kind of Iran-ology and figure out who is behind what in day-to-day events there, whether it is the judiciary or whether it's the government, the bureaucracy or the clerics who hold supreme authority. Is it difficult for you to parse who is behind what in any given news episode?
FRANCES HARRISON: Yes, it's very difficult, because in many countries you have access to the top decision makers and power brokers. You know what they're like as characters. You know their political views. But, obviously, in Iran, journalists do not have access to the supreme leader, for example, and not that much access to the president. It's sort of like Kremlin-ology. It's very difficult, even inside, to know exactly what's happening. BOB GARFIELD: Tell me what it was like just going about your everyday business in this environment, especially in a place where women's place in society is quite restricted? FRANCES HARRISON: Well, I mean, I would differ with what you've said, that a woman's place in society is pretty restricted. I mean, when you compare Iran with any Arab country, or Afghanistan, Iranian women are more educated and more progressive. University students, at least 65 percent are women, undergraduates. In many government offices you see a lot more women at the lower ranks than men, and those women will eventually become managers and then they will shape the future.
But, having said that, of course, the culture is still quite conservative in many ways, and it's nothing particularly to do with Islam. BOB GARFIELD: Tell me whether as a woman, or just as a Westerner, how difficult it was to get ordinary Iranians to speak to you. FRANCES HARRISON: Well, it is increasingly difficult to get people to speak to you openly. But now and again, you get interesting responses, and it's when you least expect it. I remember, for example, doing a vox pox on the streets of Tehran when Saddam Hussein had been sentenced, and the headlines were all about a dictator being sentenced to death. And I wondered what people in Iran would have to say about it, given that they'd fought an eight-year-long war against Saddam's forces.
And, in fact, a couple of people, quite interestingly, said to me, oh, well, what we like is to see a dictator meet his just desserts. Then they would sort of say, well, we hope it will happen in other countries, too, sort of nod-nod, wink-wink — in other words, what about the dictators in this country? When will they get what's coming to them?
So you'd be surprised. Sometimes people find quite interesting ways of, subtle ways of expressing what they really think, despite the restrictions, despite the fear, which is increasing. BOB GARFIELD: You did a piece on the BBC website, and it includes a remarkable passage. I'm just going to quote you. It says, "People have come to my office with information and I have found myself warning them to be careful about coming again. It gets to a point where you find yourself questioning the motives of anyone brave enough to speak out. Either it is a trap or perhaps they are really naive - in which case why are we interviewing them?"
Now, that is [LAUGHING] a complicated environment in which to do any reporting. FRANCES HARRISON: Yes. BOB GARFIELD: Tell me more. FRANCES HARRISON: Well, a couple of days after I left Iran, the one person I had in mind, who's a student activist, who had helped us a lot with stories, he was arrested. And I knew he had a court case the day after I left and I knew that he was going to have problems, but I wasn't expecting him to be arrested quite so fast.
And as far as I know from human rights groups like Amnesty International, he's in solitary confinement. And it's pretty kind of gutting when you think that people you've interviewed, who've had contact with foreign journalists, and not only myself, end up in jail. And he's not the only one. There are others.
And so when they come openly to your office and you know people are watching, you know, it's my responsibility to say to him, be aware of what you're doing and the risks you're taking, and we, you know, discuss whether it's safe for him to email me, to phone me, whether it's safe to even come.
You have to. You have to be responsible for people, particularly, you know, people who are quite young, to make sure that they know what they're getting into if they give you an interview. BOB GARFIELD: Well, Frances, thank you so much for joining us. FRANCES HARRISON: You're welcome. BOB GARFIELD: Frances Harrison, the new religious affairs correspondent for the BBC in London, has just returned from three years in Tehran. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]