Honoring Akbar Ganji

Amir Taheri reports from the annual awards program put on by the Foreign Press Association in London:

[T]here was an even bigger reason why I was interested in the occasion. The FPA had decided to award its very first prize for a dialogue of cultures to Akbar Ganji, an Iranian investigative reporter who is on a hunger strike in Tehran’s Evin Prison.

Together with several colleagues, I had been trying for months to persuade the Western media to take an interest in Ganji, a former Khomeinist revolutionary who is now campaigning for human rights and democracy. But we never got anywhere because of one small hitch: President Bush had spoken publicly in support of Ganji and called for his immediate release.

And that, as far as a good part of the Western media is concerned, amounts to a kiss of death. How could newspapers that portray Bush as the world’s biggest “violator of human rights” endorse his call in favor of Ganji?

To overcome that difficulty, some of Ganji’s friends had tried to persuade him to make a few anti-American, more specifically anti-Bush, pronouncements so that the Western media could adopt him as a “hero-martyr.” Two years ago, similar advice had been given to Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She was made to understand one stark fact of contemporary life: You will not be accepted as a champion of human rights unless you attack the United States.

Ebadi had accepted the advice and used her address during the prize ceremony in Oslo to launch a bitter attack on the United States as the arch-violator of human rights. ***

Would Ganji adopt a similar tactic in order to get media attention in the West? The answer came last January and it was a firm no.

The result was that Ganji, probably the most outspoken and courageous prisoner of conscience in the Islamic Republic today, became a non-person for the Western media. Even efforts by the group Reporters Without Frontiers, and the International Press Institute, among other organizations of journalists, failed to change attitudes towards Ganji.

How utterly sickening.

So, it was heart-warming to see the FPA honor Ganji as a champion of freedom. An audio-message from Ganji’s wife, smuggled out of Iran, was broadcast, creating the evening’s highest moment.

But the evening took a sharp turn for the worse when a “UNICEF ambassador” took the stage to award the prize to the absent Ganji. The “ambassador” was apparently unknown to Taheri, who describes her as “a petite middle-aged lady dressed all in black… [who] was introduced as one Bianca Jagger.” Ah, yes, the same Bianca Jagger who was observed in Nicaragua by P.J. O’Rourke, who chronicled her desolation at the electoral defeat of the Communists there, and consigned her to the “lonely hell of the formerly cute.” Taheri continues:

She started by telling us about her recent trips to Tehran and Damascus, presumably the two capitals of human rights that she likes best, and how she had been told “by officials and others” that she and other Westerners had “no moral authority” to talk about human rights and freedom.

She then proceeded by saying it is all very well to remember Ganji but that should not prevent us from remembering “those held in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and all other secret prisons” that the United States is supposed to be running all over the world.

Taheri points out some of the rather obvious difference between Ganji, who is imprisoned for the crime of being a journalist, and those who are imprisoned for being terrorists. But this distinction was apparently too subtle for the famously-dense Bianca J.:

Having swallowed my anger, I gave the “UNICEF Ambassador” a piece of my mind. She seemed surprised. No one had ever told her such things, especially not in a polite society of dinner jackets and long robes. “Is Ganji the same as the alleged terrorists in Guantanamo Bay?” I asked.

“Well, yes, I mean no, I mean yes,” she mumbled. “But they are all prisoners, aren’t they?”

It was eventually explained to Mr. Taheri that Bianca “had once been married to a British pop singer.” He concludes:

Well, it had been a good evening. In the end, however, as the lady’s husband had once crooned: I could get no satisfaction.

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