One of the more effective methods illiberal societies use to control the coverage they receive from international journalists is not necessarily to keep all of them out of the country, but to only let in a few. Those journalists who are given a visa know they risk losing it if their coverage is too critical. Many self-censor, even if they are not censored directly.
During the years Saddam Hussein ruled and brutalized Iraq, for example, a visa for Iraq was a hot ticket. Reporters knew the only thing they were supposed to write about was how international sanctions punished innocent Iraqis. Many complied. Their reports all seemed to feature a trip to a hospital to see an infant who was about to die because sanctions prevented her from receiving medicine.
When, prior to Saddam’s overthrow, I applied for a visa at Iraq’s embassy in Ottawa, the little man who answered the door told me my odds of getting one would improve if I submitted articles I had written about Iraq. When I told him I didn’t have any, which probably wasn’t true, he suggested I show him anything I had written about Israel and the Palestinians. I never did get a visa, but I didn’t compromise myself, either.
Knowing all this, it’s with some pride that I found out this week from a friend with contacts inside the Iranian Foreign Ministry that I am on the ministry’s “black list” of journalists who are barred from entering the country. The reason dates back to stories I wrote following my last trip to Iran in 2004, when I met and reported on the fate of several democratic dissidents who revealed new details about the murder in Iran of Canadian Zahra Kazemi.
I am particularly amused because this news comes shortly after a couple of readers, including former Conservative MP Paul Forseth, accused me of being a stooge for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.