June 15, 2007
Ahmadinejad's Iran



Watch the program: Part 1 | Part 2

For two years I'd been trying to get a press visa into Iran. Downloading the application form, filling it out, attaching the passport photos. It was all so routine and always so unsuccessful that when I did it halfway through the Australian summer of 2007, I really wasn’t expecting a result.

A few weeks later I was driving down the East Coast on a glorious, sunny day when I got the call, I was in. I had to pull over I was so excited.

But then came the bad news. It's a 10-day visa and your time starts now.

Now?! I was five hours away from Sydney, no flight booked, no interviews lined up, no cash ready, nothing. I managed to plead an extra five days from the Embassy but still, I had to scramble.

I heard later from other journalists that this "instant visa" that makes it nearly impossible to plan your interviews and filming in advance is common practice. My first lesson on the difficulties of working as a journalist in Iran.

Part of the reason I was so excited was that I'd been to Iran seven years ago, not as a journalist but as a student and traveler. I had fond memories of friendly, curious people and that famous Persian hospitality.

I quickly realized that turning up as a journalist was a whole different story. It's not that people weren't friendly, but they were cautious, and very wary of me. A common refrain was "I don’t want trouble."

Once I pulled out the camera people would literally turn around and walk-away. Getting "ordinary" Iranians on tape was incredibly difficult, and those who did talk would do so briefly and often with their eyes darting around to see who was watching.

Usually, someone was watching. There was one man I met who was happy to talk to me and help me out. A conservative, deeply religious man who supported his country and didn't have a dissident bone in his body, he took me one night to a mosque to film a meeting of the Basiji –- Iran’s voluntary militia force.

The group read the Quran and did a few exercises, all very patriotic behaviour, yet before long a serious looking official in plain clothes turned up with a notepad and wanted all my details. As I left he was taking down the details of the friendly man who'd taken me to the mosque. By simply trying to help me better understand his country my new friend had managed to get himself placed on the security/intelligence radar.

But being the country of contradiction that it is -– I was also given freedoms as a journalist that surprised me. Requests for all "official" interviews had to be submitted through the Ministry of Culture and Guidance. I did this, and was granted permission to interview people who were openly critical of the government.

Ebrahim Yazdi for example, who appears in my story, is a known critic of the government and indeed the entire system, yet my request to interview him was quickly and easily approved. I also interviewed academics and economists who spoke out against President Ahmadinejad. The government owned and run media agency who helped "fix" my interviews seemed only too happy to help me get what I needed.

Despite the challenges it is a fascinating country to work in and there are so many interesting, unreported stories there. It's not all politics and nuclear programs either! My next visa application will be going off again soon ...

From Bronwyn Adcock, Reporter, SBS Dateline
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