Nahlah Ayed: Can Iran's democracy voices still be heard?

It shouldn't surprise that Iran has denied reporting visas to the CBC and other Western news agencies to cover Friday's presidential vote, Nahlah Ayed writes. But the many moves to wall off this particular campaign are more than just a flap over international sanctions.

Iranian authorities walling off Friday's presidential vote

Election posters still adorn the streets of Tehran, and there have been regular candidate rallies these past few weeks, but the excitement of 2009 is nowehere to be seen. (Reuters)

On the face of it, it is no surprise that a day before the Iranian presidential election, the CBC team's request for visas to cover it has gone unanswered.

For one, our countries haven't exactly been on the best of terms for some time. Certainly the past year — with the closure of Canada's embassy in Tehran and the eviction of Iran's from Ottawa — has been a rocky one.

But that can only be one calculation (and there is no way to know for certain), judging by the number of other foreign journalists from around the world who applied for visas and who have been either rejected or ignored, according to media watch organizations.

A stronger indication of Iran's broad policy of containment regarding this year's vote is the way authorities have tightened their hold on journalists there in recent weeks.

In choosing this next president, the Iranian regime wants to leave nothing to chance.

That was made especially clear when a field of nearly 700 candidates was narrowed down to a final list of eight largely conservative and therefore "safe" candidates.

Of the two somewhat reformist contenders who made the final cut, one has already dropped out.

Meanwhile, leading up to the vote, some local journalists have been, preemptively, put in prison. Certain news websites have been blocked. The internet has been slowed down to a crawl, and substantial restrictions have been placed on the relatively few foreign journalists who have been allowed into the country.

Further, we're told that Culture Minister Mohammad Hosseini had asked that foreign reporters applying to enter the country be vetted carefully so that "contrary to what happened during the last election, Zionist spies are prevented from coming to Iran."

All this, in fact, has everything to do with what happened during the last election in 2009.

Back then, opposition candidates strayed from the usual election narrative and loudly called for change.

House arrest

We were there in 2009 to witness that vote. We watched as these self-described reformists electrified the campaign by articulating at least some of the desires on the minds of a great many Iranians.

The last of the moderates? Supporters of Iranian presidential candidate, Hasan Rohani, who has the backing of the former Greeen movement leaders, during a campaign rally in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, June 8, 2013. (Associated Press)

They promised a  "great change," as Zahra Rahnavard told us in an interview in Tehran during that campaign.

Rahnavard is the wife of Mir Hossein Mousavi, who was the more popular of the reformist candidates, and is a professor and sculptor who was visible throughout her husband's campaign, in a first for women in Iranian politics.

She used the word "we" when she spoke about her husband's plans for Iran then. "We would work on the economy, unemployment across the country — and freedom of speech," she said.

Instead, she and her husband have been under house arrest since later that year.

What happened last time was spontaneous, and therefore dangerous. But it was far from being the work of foreign meddlers, as the culture minister would have it, a favourite explanation of authoritarian regimes unhappy about a restive citizenry.

The upswell of interest in the vote came from the country's young people, who form the majority of the population and whose imaginations were captured by the campaign.

When the voting was over, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared the winner (the opposition disputed the results, saying they had been cheated), those youth turned to the streets.

The protests had an energy that had not been seen in many years in Iran and they lasted for weeks, despite a sustained effort right from the start to bludgeon the protestors into silence.

In a model that would be copied elsewhere in the region during the Arab uprisings of 2011, the protesters had to use their cellphones, Twitter and Facebook to cover the events for the world to see. The foreign journalists, by that point, were gone.

Citizen journalists

Eventually, the protesters, too, were gone from the streets — cowed, rounded up, imprisoned, threatened, exiled, or killed.

This time, the regime wants to keep it that way. No surprises.

As Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs often reminds us, it is "the sole prerogative of each country or region to determine who is allowed to enter."

The man who is negotiating Iran's nuclear development with the West, Saeed Jalili, is one of the presidential frontrunners, and is said to be a favourite of the ayatollah, Iran's supreme leader. (Reuters)

But by restricting foreign media access  — on top of maintaining strict rules that prevent local journalists from reporting freely, prohibiting independent election observers and blocking the internet to hamper citizen reporting — the regime is denying its own citizens, and the rest of the world, the chance to decide for themselves whether this election and its results are as credible as the regime would like them to be.

"As news agencies in Iran cannot tackle sensitive subjects and are obliged to employ a number of so-called 'journalists' who are in fact intelligence officers, foreign media coverage of the persecution of Iranian journalists and civil society is a matter of great importance," says a recent report by Reporters Without Borders.

The group also offers advice to journalists who are entering Iran on how to safely navigate a country considered by the organization as an "Enemy of the Internet."

We weren't entirely free to do as we pleased when we covered the last election in Iran. We didn't have a choice on where to stay, and we had to be accompanied by a minder wherever we went. We knew our emails and phone calls were being monitored.

But we spoke to voters at the polls, to many figures of the opposition, to Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Prize-winning human rights advocate, as well as to figures on the government side.

We attended the rallies, on both sides, and later witnessed the protests even as the motorcycle riding Basij chased down young men and women in the streets. And we were able to report all of what we saw.

For weeks afterwards, though, we had to rely on citizen reports and video to try to tell the story of what was happening in Iran from abroad.

Could these people do that again this time given all the restrictions? Far from certain.

Some are convinced, given that the simmering anger and passion remains, that the answer is yes.

I recently met Sina Motalebi, believed to be the first Iranian blogger to have been arrested in Iran. He was thrown into solitary confinement for three weeks for having an opinion, and now works for the BBC's Persia unit in London.

"When you have something to say, when other means of communications is closed to you," he says, "you will find a way to express yourself, even if all the doors are closed."