The Dangers of Being an Undercover Journalist in Iran
I guess interrogations, wire tapping, and the constant paranoia that you're being followed is what you get when you try to investigate separatist movements on a tourist visa.
This article originally appeared on VICE France.
Editors' note: The writer was not commissioned by or working for VICE when he decided to try his luck as a journalist in Iran. He did this of his own accord, and he wrote about that experience for us afterward.
Early last year, I decided to go to Iran for a while to work as a journalist. I didn't know much about the country, except for some basic information I had learned in high school—and through watching Argo. I had just been dumped and had thrown myself into studying philosophy at the University of Nanterre. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself, so I wanted to get away and travel the world.
I arrived in Iran in early August of last year. I went on a tourist visa because it's relatively easy to obtain but also knew there were considerable risks in that, if authorities found out I was a journalist. I did some reading on the subject and learned that getting the wrong visa could qualify me as a spy and get me sent to jail. Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, for example, was at the time spending time in an Iranian prison on charges of espionage. Not that the two really compare.
I tried to make sure that I had several alibis for my stay in the country. I registered with a university I never attended, but I made sure I always carried my student card on me. I also started a blog about sports, which I updated daily. I even had business cards printed out for that blog, which was actually just really handy. I handed them out to people I interviewed and potential sources.
I've always been fascinated with shows and movies about spies, so I have to admit that I enjoyed my ruse a little bit. And it fed my sense of paranoia: When I arrived in Tehran, I looked in the rear-view mirror of the taxi to make sure I wasn't being followed. When I walked the street, I zigzagged. My photographer and I would discuss an article in the bathroom. I was way overdoing it at that point.
After working in the heat of the Iranian capital for ten days, the photographer I worked with and I headed North to Tabriz—the capital of East Azerbaijan Province, about 400 miles away. We were supposed to investigate a separatist movement with a young fixer.
To find out if we were being followed or not, we used a technique I learned from Le Bureau des Légendes, a spy show on French TV channel Canal +. It's simple: You take a pile of blank papers, write coherent bullshit on a page, and cover that with another page, while sticking small pieces of rubber between the pages. If the pieces of rubber are gone when you come back, you know someone has searched through your stuff. We did it, but when we came home all the little pieces of rubber were in place. We weren't being followed, apparently.
But our fixer had told us that there were a lot of spies and informants in the area, and we were interviewing a lot of different people, investigating an extremely sensitive issue. On the third day we decided to go to a football match—the stadium being a separatist stronghold, according to my fixer. Coming in, we noticed cops and soldiers circling the entrance. There were a lot of them.
Right after we had bought our tickets, a few undercover cops took us aside and asked for our passports. My mouth was dry, and I felt extremely weak. One of them had a brightly colored shirt and an imperfect set of teeth, and he asked how come we were in Tabriz, if we were really tourists. "You don't look like a tourist," he said. That day, though, I was wearing a New York Yankees cap, so I objectively did look like a tourist. But this guy's piercing eyes sent a chill down my spine anyway. I started yapping about how I was a massive football fan, that I was a Manchester supporter. I was being pretty annoying, and after another quick glance in my passport, he let me through. My photographer was held up a while longer.
When I went in the stadium, I lost sight of the fixer. I walked around, and after about 15 minutes, one of the guys who had held me up came up to me and indicated that I had to follow him. I acted like I didn't see him. The fixer had told me earlier: "These guys don't let you know when they arrest you. They lead you to a corner where nobody can see you, put a bag over your head, and take you with them."
He had told me he had been arrested a few years back because of a protest tweet, so I trusted him. Apparently, that time he had been approached by about ten men, who asked him to follow them. They put him in a car with a bag over his head and took him to a tiny jail—a kind of cage—where they kept him for two weeks. They gave him one small meal a day, and apparently he was also tortured. He returned to his home a zombie—13 pounds lighter and his face swollen.
I finally found him with the photographer—they had both been allowed to go through. We decided not to interview anyone during the game, so we just sat down and watched it. It was pretty terrible. When that was over, we were arrested.
A guy ordered us to follow him under the pretext that he wanted to check our passports a second time. As we were walking behind him, I shot a quick glance at my fixer. His face had turned red, so I was pretty sure this wasn't standard procedure. The guy was soon joined by his undercover colleagues, who escorted us into a building to be interrogated.
I had agreed on a made up story about our friendship with the photographer, but that didn't seem to do much good. About ten crazy faces were staring at us as we entered a small room. The questions came in a flood: They wanted to know our age, our name, our surname, our address, our job in France, our religion, the reason for our trip to Iran and Tabriz. The exact names of the monuments we visited. There had been no way to plan and anticipate these kinds of questions. Their curiosity would always be bigger than my imagination.
I knew that I had to have absolute control of my body language. I couldn't scratch my head or rub my ear during my answers, because they'd read it a certain way. Anything coming out of my mouth was carefully written on a piece of paper, so I knew that if I contradicted myself, my photographer, or my fixer, we'd be done.
After me, our fixer was interviewed in Farsi. His eyes were watering throughout the ordeal, so I imagine they were a little bit more honest and direct with him.
In my stupidity, I still had two or three issues of Charlie Hebdo in my bag, thinking I would read them before leaving them somewhere on a plane. And I had printed a series of articles on de Pasdarans—also known as Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution—a brach of the Iranian army that has been accused of smuggling alcohol into the country through a secret airport. On an insane impulse, I asked if I could be excused to use the bathroom for a minute.
A few guards accompanied me to the doors of a set of filthy toilets. I rolled up my sleeves, tore up dozens of pages, and buried the balls of paper as deep as possible in the shit heap that had cumulated in the toilet. It didn't flush, of course. I washed my hands with a water pipe and got out 20 minutes later praying that nobody suspected anything. I was made to return to the interrogation room. A couple of hours later, our passports were given back to us, and we were free to go.
They promised that they'd be back though, and I didn't doubt it. Once we had gotten as far away as possible, my photographer and I asked the fixer what they had said about us to him. He mentioned that my trip to the bathroom had seemed suspect, and that soldiers would be searching the septic tank in order to find information. And he mentioned that nobody believed that we were actually tourists. "They accused me of hiding spies and threatened I would go to jail. They are disgusted that you're atheist. They think you might rape my mother."
A few weeks earlier, I had been lying beside a swimming pool in Cannes. Now I was facing being kidnapped by the Iranian secret service. Our pragmatic fixer said that they would probably come get us that night, and he explained what kind of torture methods the security forces use if you don't comply: First, they put your head in a toilet. Secondly, they electrocute you. Thirdly, they just beat you up.
He tried to make us feel better by telling us that he had went through that at 15. "If I that happened to me at fifteen, it won't be hard for you to get through now." I sent my father a coded email asking him to contact the Ministry of Foreign Affairs if he didn't have any news from me by 7:30 the following morning.
To keep my mind off of things and not seem suspect, I played a game of football with my fixer's brother. When we arrived on the field, a car stopped next to it, and a man inside observed us for over two hours. He left when we left. I was now completely convinced that they would come for us that night. I decided to type out all of my notes and burn the notebooks. I didn't sleep that night, worried about how I could have made such a stupid mistake—unintentionally putting our fixer and his family in danger. Hours passed by, and nothing happened. I sat on my bed all night with my bag packed, jumping at the slightest noise. Around 3 AM, all the mosques of the region called to prayer. A little later, we ran away to Tehran.
There, we finished the projects we had been working on—likely while being followed and tapped. We disconnected the batteries of our smartphones and tried to look as much like tourists as we could. The fixer had warned us that our freedom would be fragile for the rest of our stay. But aside from the fact that we were being tailed, nothing big happened. We had the chance to leave the country just like we had arrived, by plane.
I'm not proud of my story, far from it. But it opened my eyes to possible dangers of the job, and I'm definitely not as naïve as I was before I went. Overall, it has strengthened me. You can learn a lot from sitting down and watching a great spy show.
Rory Peck Trust offers advice, support, and resources for freelance journalists worldwide. For more information click here.
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