Journalism is not normally a friendly business, with the competitive drive to out-report causing journalists to keep their contacts, ideas and information to themselves. Indeed, before the Iranian election – when there was no real breaking news apart from peaceful protests (never huge headline grabbers) and speeches by potential candidates on domestic issues nowhere near as exciting as the destruction of Israel, inflation and unemployment – the other journalists I met working in the country were their usual guarded selves.
The net café in the foyer of the rather gaudy Laleh hotel in central Tehran that a big chunk of the foreign press — unable to get the internet in their rooms — were using as a kind of communal office was, with rare exceptions, a quiet and unfriendly place.
On the morning the much debated election results were announced, however, things changed.
One factor was that we all heard at once, through the approved “news services agencies” — the privatised state surveillance companies that we were required by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance to work through — that our visas, which were only valid for a week to ten days and in many cases close to expiring, would not be renewed. Another was probably our bewilderment at the result; was it a fix as so many of our contacts were insisting? Or had we, as is so often the case with foreign journalists working in the third world, allowed ourselves to be fooled by wealthy urban elites, whose opinions and attitudes we could understand more easily, and misjudged the mood of the country at large? (For the record I think it was a little of both.)
Indeed these were the first topics on which, out of necessity, we turned to each other for counsel.
Then journalists started having their cameras and tapes taken by the police, being beaten, arrested and, in the case of Toshiharu Tanio, a very courageous (read kamikaze) reporter from Japan’s Nippon TV, bitten. Seriously, bitten. I thought in his original email to me where he said “they bit me really hard” that he was, being a non-native speaker of English, misspelling, but no, he meant bitten — with teeth.
This of course, by making it an issue of safety, strengthened our fledgling sense of solidarity immensely. Older journalists in particular took time to check that we pups weren’t taking too many risks, or that if we were, we were doing so knowingly.
Most important of all however, was the sense that the story was much too big, and unfolding much to fast for any one reporter or team to keep on top of, particularly with the information blackout imposed by the regime. Doing our basic job getting the story out became more important than pursuing the personal glory of being the first or the most knowledgeable.
Everyone was in it together, sharing rides, leads, translators and any information they had. The first thing most journalists would do — of course some remained sourly aloof — upon returning to the café, which I referred to as the office, was share whatever they had just seen on the streets with whoever else was there, confident that it would be passed on.
A contribution of mine that raised a few eyebrows was that the some of the “protesters” had mobbed an unarmed man they said was a member of the Basiji Militia, setting upon him with bricks and cinder-blocks. The famous Robert Fisk would, the next day rush in to inform us that the crowds were now shouting “massacre, massacre” and saying seven students had been shot when the university dormitories were raided.
Sharing information like this made our reporting better and was an inspiring thing for a young but already jaded journalist such as myself to see. There really was something bigger than just beating each other to the scoop.
It’s a pity it took such extreme circumstances to remind us of this.