A Plea to Western Media About "Sakineh", Political Prisoners, and Human Rights (Alinejad)

Publication Date: 
December 22, 2010
Enduring America

Sakineh Ashtiani is a 43-year-old Iranian woman who has been under threat of death by stoning since 2007 on charges adultery and complicity in murder. Over the last year, her cause has been taken up in the "West" by politicians, human rights activists, film stars, and musicians. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicholas Sarkozy have made statements demanding her release. The European Council passed a resolution condemning the stoning sentence. Ashtiani's face adorns the front pages of newspapers across Europe, who report every twist and turn of her case.

Surprisingly, in the Islamic Republic, where no one normally sees the photo of a woman who is to be stoned to death, Ashtiani's case has become fodder for conservative newspapers and the official television stations of the Government, who claim Western interference in an Iranian judicial matter. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has condemned the Western criticisms as a "crime". In late August 2010, the newspaper Kayhan called Carla Bruni, First Lady of France, a "prostitute" who "deserved death" after she condemned the stoning sentence.

Put bluntly, the Government is exploiting the Ashtiani case to divert attention from the deaths and imprisonments of young women and men who oppose the fraudulent outcome of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election. And because the Western media have only highlighted "Sakineh" amongst so many cases of human rights abuses, the Islamic Republic has been successful in manipulating the foreign press.

I had always believed that, because the razor of censorship from the Iranian judiciary and security services never loomed over the heads of my colleague in the west, they must be more experienced and therefore make fewer mistakes. But within the space of one year, I have seen how the mistakes of my colleagues in the western media can endanger the life of an innocent woman.

I realise that the intent of my colleagues has been to uphold the principles of human rights, attaching so much importance to the freedom of one individual, but Ashtiani has become a pawn to be exploited by both the press and the Iranian government. Inaccurate stories not only threaten her but put the campaign for the freedom of all political prisoners at risk.

Consider this recent episode: on 9 December, there were reports that Ashtiani had been released because of international pressure. (See  as the story spread.)

As an Iranian journalist who worked for 10 years for newspapers inside and outside Iran, I was sceptical that the Islamic Republic's judiciary would give in to the "West". Indeed, my experience was that the Iranian system would not give way to any journalist.

When I was a Parliamentary correspondent, I was expelled from Iran's Majlis after I wrote an expose about how the country's MPs had secretly awarded themselves huge pay rises and bonuses. In Britain, Heather Brooke was praised and rewarded for exposing the expenses scandal of parliamentarians; my reward in Iran was to be dismissed. And I also know what it is like to be imprisoned in Iran. As a pregnant teenager, I was sent to jail for writing a protest leaflet.

The story of Sakineh's "release" unfolded like this: as Britain's reporters and editors prepared their Friday morning headlines that Ashtiani has been freed, sceptical Iranian journalists outside Iran expressed strong doubts on blogs and on Facebook about the accuracy of the report. We made no difference. The false reports appeared on the front pages of the UK's newspapers.

Western statesmen, believing the headlines, congratulated the Iranian government on her freedom. But Ashtiani had not released: she and her son had been sent from prison to the family home to film "confessions" for  about her crimes and the duplicity of activists and lawyers who pursued her case. The Iranian government must have smirked cunningly as their press and TV reported how the West was in the business of spreading lies and falsehoods about the Islamic Republic.

And Tehran also had diverted the Western media from other, true stories. During the week of Ashtiani's "release", families came to Behesht-e Zahra cemetery to mourn the dozens of Iranians who died and hundreds who were imprisoned in protests of December 2009. As Iranian security forces were attacking and detaining the mourners, Iran focus the world’s attention on Sakineh. No journalist noticed the letters and pleas of the families to the United Nations. No one posted headline about the request for the UN to send independent observers to report about what is happening inside Iran.

For the past 18 months, many of my Iranian colleagues and I have been interviewing and writing about these families of those killed and imprisoned in the post-election crisis. Our stories appear in Persian-language newspapers and on websites that operate outside the country. But our reports rarely break out into the Western media.

As we approach the anniversary of those who died in the demonstrations of 27 December 2009, I ask my Western colleagues not to be fixated by the Ashtiani case. I ask them to look at the political prisoners languishing in Iran's jails and the pressures faced by families who lost their loved ones during the protest.

I ask them to notice those like renowned Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who represented many of these families and political prisoners, who has now been detained for 3 1/2 months, who has gone on hunger strike not only to fight for her rights but for the rights of the all those who are imprisoned for dissent and pursuit of civil society.

I ask the Western media not just to see one 43-year-old woman fighting for her life. I ask the Western media to take notice of the thousands, inside and outside prison, who are fighting for their lives and those of fellow Iranians.

Masih Alinejad, an , writes for EA