Iran is a dangerous place to practice journalism – and it’s all the more perilous if the journalist is a woman. Parisa Hafezi, who covers her native country as Iran Bureau Chief for Reuters News, has been warned to stop truth-telling. Her home and office have been raided, and she has endured beatings and arrests. Yet she keeps working. On Monday, the 41-year-old will receive a Courage in Journalism award from the International Women’s Media Foundation at a ceremony in Los Angeles.
Q. You were the first female journalist to work for a foreign news organization in your country. How did you get started?
A. I had studied engineering in college. But I couldn’t find a job because I was a woman. So accidentally I became a journalist and I loved it. For the first time in my life I became familiar with politics and news.
Q. You have lived through tumultuous times. Your country has adjusted to being an Islamic republic as you have been covering it. And you covered the 2009 election, which led to violent demonstrations and a crackdown after some people complained that the results were rigged. Of the stories you’ve covered, which are the most telling?
A. There were two. One was the 2009 election story. It was so challenging. But I had another one, years ago. It was a juvenile execution. This guy was 15 and he killed a schoolmate by accident in a school fight. The judge found him guilty. He waited in prison for three years before he became 18 and he was executed then. It was so heartbreaking. I did my best to convince (authorities) to pardon him, but it didn’t happen. He was hanged. It had a very negative impact for a long time. I lived a long time with that story inside myself.
Q. Tell us about the election. A girl, Neda Agha-Soltan, became a symbol of those protests after she was shot on camera during a demonstration.
A. We were banned from covering the protests. Three days after the election, we received a fax telling is that it’s better that we not cover those stories. But I had to go out. I went out. I was picked up by guards, riot police. They had electric batons. For a while, I couldn’t walk. But that is part of my job. I got arrested and detained by plainclothes agents. They took me, they questioned me for three or four hours, and then they let me go. My house was raided in front of my kids.
When Neda was killed I was in the area, but I was not at that spot. We got the film (of her death). It was a shocking thing. There was debate whether we should use it or not, because we had to make sure it was correct. We were debating if we should use it until three or four in the morning. Then we decided we had to use it.
Q. You have two daughters. How has your work affected them?
A. My daughters are 16 and 12. I really tried to keep them away from what was going on. I never told them I had such problems. When my home was searched they were scared. I lost custody of them and then I regained custody. Sometimes they are scared, and they are worried about me.
Q. Why do you keep doing journalism if you have to risk your safety?
A. This job becomes our life. People ask why I don’t quit. I say, “Why should I?” I love it. I just love it. Maybe this gives me some cover to fight also. I’m not a political activist. I fight my own way – reporting, letting people know, not being biased.