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Source: The Atlantic

Feb 17, 2023

There’s no substitute for reporting a story firsthand.

By Mary Louise Kelly


“Shame on you for partnering with the murderous government,” read one comment on Twitter. “How much did the mullahs pay you?” another user wrote. And a third: “You have sold your soul.”


These people had written to me because I was in Iran, on a week-long reporting trip. They believed I must have struck some sort of bargain: favorable coverage in exchange for access. They assumed that in an authoritarian state, we would see only what the government wished us to see. The comments, while ungracious, prompt a reasonable question: What is the value of flying 6,000 miles to a country where months of anti-government protests have been largely stilled, a country where—on the surface—things appear calm?


NPR, where I anchor All Things Considered, has been committed to covering Iran for decades now, from the outside when we must and on the ground when we can. My team and I applied for visas back in September. We pushed. For months, we got nowhere. And then, one morning at the very end of January, an email arrived from Tehran. Subject line: “Your visa has been approved.” Six days later, two NPR colleagues and I were on a plane.

Visas for American journalists to visit Iran are rare and typically granted for just a few days. This marked the first time since 2021 that NPR would be able to report from inside the country. Our plan for the trip was pretty basic: talk to everyone we could find. Ask what’s on their mind. We interviewed people in parks, on street corners, in their home. We shared a table and sipped cardamom tea with young women who wanted to know why America isn’t doing more to help their country.

We reached out to Iranian officials too. In an interview in his office, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told me that people in Iran are free to speak their mind. This is not true. Many people we approached were visibly frightened to talk with us. Some pointed up, scanned for cameras, and whispered, “They’re watching.”


One perfume seller in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar spoke at length of his disgust for the government. We agreed not to use his name or take his picture, but we recorded his comments. After the interview, he followed us out of the shop and asked if we could disguise his voice.


As we discussed what might be possible, he changed his mind. “It’s okay,” he said. “Use it. I want you to. People need to know what is happening here.”


What is happening in Iran is that following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the country’s so-called morality police, protests spread to some 150 towns and cities. The regime crackdown was swift, and it was ferocious. According to the United Nations Human Rights Office, hundreds of protesters have been killed, thousands detained, and four executed. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that nearly 100 journalists have been detained in Iran since the protests began last fall. One was arrested the day we flew in, another the day before we left. There is no First Amendment in Iran, no constitutionally protected right to free speech.


And yet.

“It’s almost like they can’t help themselves,” one of the producers traveling with me observed, with more than a little awe, as person after person in Iran acknowledged that it’s dangerous to speak with visiting American journalists, and then proceeded to pour their heart out. I stopped to buy a chocolate bar from a corner grocery store one day and struck up a conversation with the man at the register. He said that rampant inflation—Iran’s currency recently hit a record low against the dollar—means he can’t afford a house or a car or any of the things he needs to be independent.


“Who do you blame for the economy and for daily life being like this?” I asked.


“The regime,” he said. “If I want to be clear, the regime.”


As for us, we were assigned an interpreter but were able to ask whatever questions we wanted. We were able to visit some, but not all, of the places we wanted to see. American journalists are required to secure permits and pay extra fees to report from outside Tehran; we asked for permission to travel to Isfahan, a city of about 2 million people in central Iran, and it was granted. We asked to go to Evin prison, in Tehran, where political prisoners are held. We were told that this would not be possible.


We were stopped twice, both times during the pro-regime rally on Revolution Day, marking the 44th anniversary of the 1979 revolution. The first time was by uniformed police. The second was by a plainclothes squad that materialized out of a sea of people carrying Iranian flags and death to america, death to israel signs. They checked our papers, our driver’s and interpreter’s papers, and our temporary press passes. We were waved on.


A journalist’s job is not to advocate for particular policies or reforms, but rather to document what we see and hear, put hard questions to people in positions of power, and then let our listeners and readers make up their mind about the answers. In Iran, we witnessed a country where people are angry, where protests are not completely extinguished, but where the regime—for now—remains firmly in control.


I don’t pretend to feel neutral about that. Journalists are human; we bring opinions and biases to our work and to our lives. The Atlantic’s George Packer proposes that instead of neutrality, the goals instead should be independence and accuracy. He described our trade in these pages as demanding “the necessary effort, always doomed to fall short, of rendering reality exactly, like a carpenter striving for plumb, level and square.”


Okay, then: For an assignment like Iran, the necessary effort involves being on the ground. I acknowledge the inherent limitations of any foreign correspondent, the impossibility of an outsider grasping the complexity of a place with anything close to the insight of a local reporter. But there is value to fresh eyes and ears, and to the resources and international platform that a major news outlet can bring to a story.


In Iran, things seem quiet. But when you get there, a truth becomes apparent: Iranians with differing views will always find ways for their stories to be told. On the eve of Revolution Day, the government put on a fireworks show, and as the explosions crackled across the night sky, my producer suddenly cocked her head. “What are they saying?” she asked. We threw open our hotel windows to hear cries of “Death to the dictator!” and “Freedom!” echoing from the apartment buildings around us.


That moment demonstrated the divisions playing out in Iran. It revealed a narrative very different from the one the government has spent the past five months promoting. And we would have missed it, had we not gotten on a plane to witness it firsthand. There was no contradiction in that act, no selling of our souls.


Journalists can want the people of Iran to have the government they deserve—one that believes in human rights, equality, and free speech—and also honestly and unflinchingly report what we find when we go there.



Mary Louise Kelly is a contributing writer at The Atlantic. She is a host of NPR’s All Things Considered and author of the forthcoming It.Goes.So.Fast.

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