Soheil Asefi, the 31-year-old son of Iranian political activists, knew early on he wanted to be involved in journalism. At the age of 15 he began publishing articles on cinema, politics and culture in his hometown of Tehran. He went on to study cinema at The University of Art in Tehran and continued a decade long career as an independent journalist in Iran.
Asefi’s coverage of Iranian politics and history has appeared in a number of reformist newspapers, including Shargh, a popular reformist paper, as well as Rooz Online, the first Persian electronic daily.
In August 2007, Asefi was jailed in Iran’s Evin prison after the Islamic Republic accused him of “publishing lies and articles against the regime and providing information to foreign websites.” More than 60 days later he was released on bail, but found it difficult to continue writing and complete his studies in Iran.
Asefi later gained a spot in a writers in exile program in Germany, sponsored by the German PEN Center and the Human Rights Office of Nuremburg. He was granted political asylum and is now based in Berlin. He contributes to the Journalists in Exile blog, sponsored by Reporters Without Borders, but continues to struggle to find paying work. Asefi spoke with Global Journalist's Lucas Minisini about his journey from solitary confinement in Iran to a new life in Germany.
Global Journalist: What was your life like as a journalist in Iran?
Asefi: I define myself as an independent journalist. At age 15, I started working in cinema and published a few articles on subjects related to cinema. Later on, I started writing in Politics and Culture, it was a column of serious news purpose in Iran.
Blogs and personal web pages had not yet found their place as meaningful social media tools when I started my work. In such an atmosphere, numerous articles of mine were published in the history, politics and culture pages [of] high circulation dailies.
[Later on] we began witnessing the reemergence of growth of the radical and independent student media.
A new chapter opened. The ability to speak out right in [a] new way appeared. Exactly at the same [time], I started …. the second phase of my work as a political journalist.
With growing pressure, my collaboration with Iran’s print media diminished. …. [Reformists] said that I could not work anymore in the print newspapers, because I was not part of [their] agenda, [I was] always independent. They could not tolerate my points of view, even if my articles were regularly published.
GJ : How did you adapt to all these changes ?
Asefi: I had no choice but to start my own online space. … I started working with [Rooz Online, the first Persian electronic daily news]. …
Many of my articles, reports and interviews with various authorities of the Islamic Republic and members of the Islamic Parliament were published. At the same time, [I was doing] reports and interviews with opposition and [academics], and things like that.
[The project was] disrupted after the security forces raided my apartment and confiscated my computer, my rough drafts, my archives and everything. I had a chance to leave Iran at this time. If I wanted to escape illegally, there was a room. [I preferred] to stay, it was my work. …. Four days later, I was detained by the Islamic Revolutionary Court.
GJ: What happened to you while you were in prison?
Asefi: Interrogators of the Islamic Republic … call themselves experts because they don’t want to call themselves interrogators. They questioned me about every single piece of work I wrote. It was about ideological things. Apparently they had read all my work. I had to answer on every point. I had to write some things down, word by word, so as they have proof of what I said, being able to use it against me after.
I had to explain the reasons of my opposition on certain points, for example the executive order of the Supreme Leader under Article 44 of the Constitution, which deals with the privatization [of state-owned companies] policies of the regime.
At the end of each session [the interrogators] were always unhappy that I did not cooperate. I told them many times that I was not their colleague. I spent the entire period of my detention, which was mostly psychological torture, in solitary confinement. I was denied the right to have my lawyer, to have visits from my family.
During that period, my father was also [interrogated] twice... [During this time] he saw me from some distance. I told him that I was suffering from dizziness, low blood pressure, and other physical problems. My mom, who is a journalist and frontline political activist, she was very depressed.
My bail was originally around $500,000. It was really unprecedented for a journalist, especially at that time. Thanks to pressure from the media, my bail was reduced to [about $100,000]. The collateral was the house [that] belongs to my father. It was his only property that he worked all his life to obtain as an engineer.
GJ: What was life like after you were released from prison?
Asefa: My daily life became impossible in Iran….One year after my release, I tried to work in various newspapers, but it was an entire deadlock. Even before my arrest, they were reluctant to work with me. After the release, they said to me: “Sorry we are not allowed to have your name [in print] anymore.” It was a pretext.
GJ : Do you often think about going back to Iran ?
Asefa: With [the election of reformist President Hassan] Rouhani the situation seems to have changed, and it makes me want to go back to Iran sometimes because it is where my work is. But my lawyer said, “No, don’t think about it even one moment.”
Anything that journalists write can be used as evidence of propaganda against the system, and conspiracy against the national security. We have a few independent journalists there, and we can barely hear their names in the mainstream media, but they are continuing their work.