Parisa Hafezi has been attacked by riot police on the streets of Tehran, targeted by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, endured government interrogations and even been kidnapped as a result of her work.
The Iranian-born journalist serves as chief of Reuters' bureau in Iran, and despite her brushes with danger, she refuses to step away from the job she says she loves.
Hafezi is one of four brave women journalists to be honored by the International Women’s Media Foundation at the 2011 Courage in Journalism Awards for risking their lives to cover the news. Two events are slated, for October 24 in Los Angeles and October 27 in New York.
Joining Hafezi, 41, are editor Adela Navarro Bello from Zeta newsmagazine in Mexico, Thai online newspaper director Chiranuch Premchaiporn, and reporter Kate Adie, the BBC’s first chief news correspondent, who will be awarded the IWMF’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
We spoke with Hafezi recently about why she not only continues to cover the news in such hazardous circumstances but even runs toward danger. An edited version of the interview follows.
More: You stayed to cover the violent protests on the streets of Tehran after the country’s 2009 elections when most of the media took off. Can you talk about that decision?
Parisa Hafezi: It was a very dangerous period to work in Iran, as the country was in crisis—according to officials—and foreign media, especially Reuters, that is not favored by authorities in the Islamic state often is called “the Zionist news agency" by state media. I became the bureau chief a month ahead of the 2009 vote, meaning that I was the only female, Iranian bureau chief in the country.
Three days after the vote, Reuters’ office was busted by plainclothes agents, who kept me and the team under office-detention for almost four hours and checked our stories, pictures taken from protests and our TV footage. That was the day that dozens of pro-reform senior politicians, activists and journalists were arrested.
I was followed, detained and interrogated several times in the months after the vote. Reporting protests was very dangerous, as the authorities banned foreign media members leaving their office during the street protests. Any report could be considered as supporting the opposition and acting against national security, which is a serious charge in Iran. I faced beatings in the street, detentions and house and office raids.
No other office of foreign media in Tehran faced such problems. However, I should say that the situation calmed down after some months and, as you see, I am still in Iran and continue reporting events.
More: Why did you choose to stay and continue reporting, when other journalists fled?
PH: As a journalist, my job is to report events, and to do my job properly, I need to stay in the field. I chose to stay because I should be where the news is. Without witnessing events like protests, how can you report it properly? Without feeling the fear ordinary Iranians felt when seeing riot police everywhere in the streets, how can a journalist report properly? Being beaten or detained is part of our job, particularly for those who cover stories in hostile environments. You cannot sit in an office in the United States or Europe or anywhere else and write about protests in Iran. Despite all the pressure, I decided to stay because I had to do my job.
More: What makes reporting in such dangerous circumstances worth the risks?
PH: I love my job, and taking risks is part of my job. You cannot jump into the pool and expect not to get wet. During that period, I never thought about risks, I just focused on doing my job properly and tried to write impartial and accurate reports from Tehran.
Also, I think I want to display a strong role model for my daughters. I want to teach them to be strong, to be challengers and not to give up because of pressure. Life without challenges and risks could be very boring. By taking risks, we are paving the ground for younger journalists.
More: How do your family and friends feel about the work you do? Do they ever ask you to switch careers?
PH: I am a single mother and the only child, so it makes life more difficult for me. My parents support me, but sometimes my mother complains about my stretched working hours and the fact that I have no personal life. My daughters have mixed feelings. They are proud of me, but they don't want to become journalists. They dislike my work trips and are always worried about detentions.
More: How does being a woman affect your job?
PH: It has its pros and cons. It is difficult enough to be a woman in a male-dominated Islamic country. Imagine how difficult it is to be a female journalist working for “the Zionist news agency” in an Islamic country. But I should say that it has some advantages too. Officials cannot ignore you and always try to be polite to you, as you are a woman.
I have learned to be a challenger and I never give up. Once you prove yourself as a female journalist by writing strong stories, then you are respected, even if your male colleagues or authorities try not to openly display that respect. But to be honest, my policy as the first female journalist working for foreign media in the Islamic Republic is to focus on my job as a journalist and forget about my gender.
I have never taken a man as my role model and have never wished to be a man. I see no difference between myself and my male colleagues. But sometimes as a mother I feel guilty because of not being able to spend enough time with my girls.
More: Would you ever consider taking a different assignment?
PH: If it means working in another country, I should say not yet. There are many stories to be covered in Iran.
More: What sort of reaction do you get from other women who see you putting yourself on the line to report the news?
PH: Some of them encourage me, some others tell me to get another job and some think I am crazy. But what encourages me to continue is that there are many female journalists in Iran working for local media. They are brave and talented. When I became Reuters bureau chief in Iran, many of them called me and congratulated me. When I got the IWMF award, many Iranian female colleagues told me that they were happy because it showed we can do it.
More: What message do you think your courageousness sends other women around the world?
PH: It shows that being a woman does not mean that you are less strong than men. You can face various kinds of problems, from fearing losing custody of your little daughter after the divorce because of the laws, to being considered a second-class citizen, to being detained for covering protests. But as a woman, you are strong enough to think, decide and act accordingly and properly.
Meet the other 2011 Courage in Journalism Award Winners:
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