Yeganeh Rezaian is an advocacy associate with the Committee to Protect Journalists now based in Washington, D.C.
Iran’s propagandists have always had vivid imaginations. But one scene in the Iranian state television network’s popular TV series Gando is particularly ludicrous – not to mention personal.
In its first season, characters meant to resemble me and my husband, Jason Rezaian, the former Tehran bureau chief for The Washington Post, are introduced as agents of the Central Intelligence Agency. This, of course, never happened. The true story is that my husband and I were accredited journalists working for international media organizations in 2014 when our home in Tehran was raided by agents of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who hauled us into prison and subjected us to prolonged solitary confinement, interrogation without legal representation and other inhumane acts that are illegal and, in some instances, considered torture under international law.
We were victims of a depraved system and its propaganda networks. And now, nearly seven years later, those same forces continue to slander us, undermining our personal security – and we are not the only ones.
Iran is no newcomer to attacking the press. It consistently ranks among the world’s most censored countries, and regularly arrests journalists, shutters news agencies and turns off the internet so citizens cannot share or access information.
But the flow of information has become increasingly difficult for authoritarian governments to limit. Iran’s use of popular mediums like state TV to attack journalists represents both a logical escalation and a chilling new weapon in its playbook that Iranian audiences have no opportunity to fact-check. All resources of international justice should be used to rebuke this latest tactic.
In the first season of this big-budget primetime thriller, which aired in 2019, the character based on my husband – this basis has been acknowledged by the show’s producers, director and actors – is shown working directly with U.S. intelligence services to undermine Iranian interests. The absurd portrayal – which aligns with the Iranian judiciary’s case against him – claims he is a superspy who is able to simultaneously extract nuclear secrets from Iran’s negotiators and serve as the architect of the U.S. sanctions against Iran’s economy. The show also portrayed our marriage as a CIA operation – an accusation that was flung at us during our real-life interrogation – rather than the sweet love story we know it to be. These claims have been the catalyst for much of the abuse we now receive online.
The latest season of Gando glorifies the persecution of journalists, including me. It justifies the arrest, detention and even abduction and execution of journalists by fabricating far-fetched narratives of their supposed crimes against Iran’s national security. The opening scene of this season’s first episode was a re-enactment of the extraterritorial abduction by Iranian agents of Roohollah Zam, an exiled journalist who was based in France and ran a highly popular pro-opposition news website called Amad News.
In October, 2019, Mr. Zam was lured to Iraq where Iranian agents kidnapped him and returned him to Tehran. He was put on trial in Iran’s Revolutionary Court before Abolqasem Salavati – the same judge who heard the case against my husband, and who is known as the “hanging judge” for condemning a large number of people to execution. He sentenced Mr. Zam to death, and he was killed by hanging in December, 2020.
In Gando, the character meant to resemble Mr. Zam is handed off to Iranian agents in a desert setting. He is hooded and thrown into a van. When the hood is removed he sees the Azadi Tower, Tehran’s most iconic landmark. His face expresses fear and resignation to the fate that everyone watching knows awaits him.
This sinister blurring of fact with fiction in an entertainment package makes the truth extremely difficult for Iranian viewers to identify, and it has real-world consequences. In the weeks following the show’s first season, my husband and I received unimaginably explicit and grotesque threats online. These intimidating messages have now begun anew. Some of the harassers have threatened to deliver us a fate similar to the brutal murder of Jason’s Washington Post colleague Jamal Khashoggi.
Ever since we were released from jail in a prisoner swap in 2016 and then forced into exile, I have focused my professional efforts on documenting and reporting the rise in attacks on journalists by authoritarian states. But the emergence of shows like Gando indicates the challenges.
Still, I have been heartened that, amid the threats, my husband and I have received countless messages of support, from Iranians wanting to know if the stories they were told by the government were true. I’ve responded to every one, to try to set the record straight. If I don’t, how will my compatriots, deprived as they are of independent information, ever know the truth from fiction?
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