Parisa Hafezi

Reuters, Iran.

Riot police armed with electric batons attacked Parisa Hafezi as she struggled to cover the bloodshed and chaos on the streets of Tehran. Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters marched, many shouting, “We fight; we die.”

After extensively covering the violent protests and government response for Reuters news agency, Hafezi was targeted by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which threatened to arrest her. As bureau chief for Reuters in Iran, Hafezi refused to recant her reporting on the public uprising – while many local and foreign journalists fled the country after the disputed 2009 elections.

“Some reporters refused to use the Tehran dateline, but we weren’t afraid to show we were there. We didn’t move out; we were the first on the streets,” said Hafezi, 41, an Iranian-born veteran journalist. “We had to be strong and take the risks to report the stories.”

Hafezi, one of the IWMF’s 2011 Courage in Journalism Award winners has endured beatings, interrogations and raids on her office and home because of her work. Hafezi has battled against tough restrictions on women and the media and fought efforts to censor reporting.

Undercover agents raided Reuters’ Tehran office after the massive June 2009 protests, screaming at Hafezi and her staff. They bolted the doors, seized video equipment and ransacked the office.

“While the head of the Revolutionary Guard team sat next to her and demanded (that) she show him our computer system, Parisa surreptitiously managed to send a computer message to a colleague in London to alert Reuters of the raid,” said Caroline Drees, Middle East managing editor of Reuters. “She hoped – and was right – that the Revolutionary Guard official would mistake the message for her login details.”

When she reported that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad favored a U.N.-drafted nuclear fuel deal in November 2009, she was summoned to the president’s office, where officials demanded to know her source. She refused, telling them that if they wanted to deny the report she would publish the denial. They rejected her offer and threatened to revoke her press credentials.

Months later Hafezi was abducted by four men as she left her office and taken to an unmarked building in Tehran. “Are you a spy?” they shouted, slapping her and pushing her for hours. At a time when anti-government protests were reigniting in February 2010, Iran security officials wanted to silence the media.

“Nobody knew where I was. They interrogated me and kept asking if I was having an illicit sexual relationship with former officials. I felt humiliated because I didn’t even know who they were talking about. I thought, ‘my god, I’m just doing my job and I’m being punished. As a single mother, everything is endangered,’ ” she said. “I don’t consider myself an activist – I’m a journalist trying to be impartial.

“I keep thinking that maybe as an Iranian woman I can take this opportunity to help other women, help the people be heard,” Hafezi said. That calms me down. I will do my job. I will do the interviews and tell the truth.”

As violent protests abated in 2010, authorities attempted to intimidate Hafezi by revoking her press accreditation for 45 days and interrogating her when she traveled. Today the Reuters offices are under constant surveillance and have experienced several break-ins, and staffers say that e-mails and telephone lines are bugged. The government routinely calls Reuters “the Zionist news agency.”

Two security agents invaded Reuters’ Tehran office last March, demanding to know what reporters were writing and how they get their information. They searched the office and left, after warning Hafezi not to talk about the incident.

“I kept thinking I’d get arrested, but as you see I am still working here. I’m not censoring anything. I’m trying to be impartial and do my job reporting the facts, “she said. “Officials are worried they’ll get in trouble talking to us now, but we don’t stop.”

After learning she was being awarded IWMF’s 2011 Courage in Journalism Award, Hafezi was overwhelmed by the reaction in Iran. “Someone from the culture ministry’s office said, ‘Are you as brave as they say on the IWMF website?’ My reply was, ‘Yes, I am brave enough to stay here and continue to do my work.’ This will encourage other women colleagues in the Middle East who are facing the same problems. I haven’t done anything wrong. More and more I’m getting congratulations from Iranian colleagues who were scared to say anything. Before I even had friends say, ‘Leave the country,’” she said.

Working in a male-dominated culture with tight restrictions on women, Hafezi has turned the tables. “As a woman here, men are reluctant to reject you when you ask a question. They see I’m strong. I’m not scared.” She joined Reuters in 1999 as “a part-time nobody” with a master’s degree in metallurgical engineering and started covering stories within two years. One month before the controversial 2009 election, she was named Reuters’ Tehran bureau chief – the first woman to hold the post.

Parisa Hafezi is the third female journalist from Iran to have received the IWMF Courage in Journalism Award, following Shahla Sherkat in 2005 and Jila Baniyaghoob in 2009.

Follow Parisa Hafezi on Twitter: @PHREUTERS

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