Frontline World

IRAN - Forbidden Iran, January 2004

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Forbidden Iran"

A Brief History

Undercover With the Underground

Nobel Prize Winner

Government, People, the Press

Human Rights, Blogs, Nuclear Threats




Interview With the Reporter: Undercover With the Underground

Jane Kokan enters Iran on a group bus tour.

FRONTLINE/World reporter Jane Kokan enters Iran on a group bus tour.
Reporter Jane Kokan, a Canadian journalist based in England, is an independent news and documentary director, producer, reporter and cameraperson. She works in the Balkans, the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan and Africa for a variety of international broadcasters. She spoke by telephone with FRONTLINE/World editor Sara Miles about working undercover in Iran.

You have a background in international news, but you were in northern England working on an observational police series for BBC One right before you went to Iran. What drew you to this story?

I got this call out of the blue asking if I would be interested in going to Iran -- while I was filming in the back of a police vehicle going 130 miles per hour in pursuit of an alleged big-time heroin dealer. Naturally, I was a bit distracted at the time, but I remember thinking to myself, look guys, I am not that crazy. A 54-year-old Canadian-Iranian photojournalist, Zahra Kazemi, had just been tortured and murdered in Tehran, and you want me to go follow in her footsteps?

Posters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini

Posters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini are prominent throughout Iran.
I am no stranger to working in hostile environments. I've been arrested several times before and deported from countries for covering human rights stories around the globe. In one particularly frightening episode at Addis Ababa airport in Ethiopia a few years ago, I had seven intelligence officers arrest me without formally charging me, then spit on me, tell me I was an enemy of the state and confiscate my tapes, which were later returned to me. I have worked in the Balkans, the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan, China and all over Africa. I have been shot at while traveling with local militias and even humanitarian aid convoys. I remember one day, lying in a ditch, thinking to myself "Why am I out here doing this?" I have a few diary entries which start off with the words "the day I almost died." So I promised, to my family and myself, no more war zones. I knew that Iran wasn't engulfed in a civil war, so the chances of being killed by pieces of shrapnel or a bullet were extremely slim. But there was a different kind of danger. I heard from Reporters Without Borders that Iran was "the biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East."

In London, I began meeting members of the Iranian diaspora and hearing their stories. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It was all very bloody and ugly: the torture and repression of students, journalists and opponents of the regime.

What many people don't realize is that although Iran may be a harsh fundamentalist Islamic republic, it's also a young country. More than 70 percent of Iranians are under the age of 30, and the children of the revolution are now starting to rebel. They want a separation of religion from politics and an end to the Islamic republic.

I realized that this was a huge story, and almost nobody was telling it.

You went in under false pretense -- breaking the law, in fact. What did it feel like to be constantly worried about getting caught?

Kokan destroys all evidence of her unofficial reporting

Kokan destroys all evidence of her unofficial reporting in Iran.
I had psychologically prepared myself for potential arrest. Of course, I hoped it wasn't going to happen. Always in the back of my mind was Zahra Kazemi, and 77 hours of torture and beatings. And she had come there legitimately, as a reporter. I had entered Iran illegally. I had lied on my visa application: Where I was asked "Do you intend to engage in journalistic activities?" and "Do you intend to make contact with Iranian nationals?" I'd of course said no. I was pretending to be someone I wasn't. Had I been arrested and had the honor of meeting the Tehran state prosecutor, Mr. Saeed Mortazavi, a man whose nickname is "the Butcher of Journalists," I most probably would have been charged with espionage.

Normally before I go away on assignment, I tell people where I'm going. But for the Iran assignment, I felt very alone. I hadn't told friends and colleagues I was going there. I didn't tell my parents, though my mother eventually figured I hadn't taken a holiday in the south of France after I didn't answer any of her phone calls for several weeks. I didn't even tell the Canadian Embassy in Tehran what my plans were -- they already had one dead journalist on their hands. The last thing they needed was to find that there was another one in-country, on a tourist visa, interviewing students, dissidents and political activists.

So I had to keep up this false identity. I even dyed my hair dark brown. It's normally dark blonde. It didn't matter, of course -- I wore the local Iranian dress, but I only spoke a few phrases in Farsi, I hardly passed.

Did you manage to pass as an archaeologist?

Kokan's tour group stops at an ancient fort

Kokan's tour group stops at an ancient fort.
Being an archaeologist is a lot like being a journalist on a certain level: You have to dig deep to discover the truth. I remember wanting to be an archaeologist when I was a kid after being mesmerized by reading in National Geographic about archaeological digs in Egypt. So I thought to myself, "Well, if I am going to lie about my real profession, I might as well apply for a visa using my second-favorite profession." I had taken a couple of archaeology electives in college, but I really didn't know much. It was a bit awkward when my Iranian minder would ask me: "What do you think of the remains of this Sassanian fire temple?"

But you know how men are. They love to talk about themselves. I'd say sweetly, "All I know is about the West Coast First Nation tribes of the Americas," and mention the Haida and Nootka trading routes and their prehunting ceremonies. And then I'd say, "I'm here to learn about your country. Tell me what you know about the ancient Persians." And he wouldn't shut up, essentially.

How did you know whom to trust?

Kokan interviews a political dissident

Kokan interviews a political dissident at a secret location in Iran.
I didn't. I relied on my instincts. I had set up all of my meetings in advance through contacts in the student movement, but it was often hard to connect. I had arranged some rendezvous in bookshops and museums, since those were places it was OK for a foreigner to be browsing around. I remember once in Yazd, a beautiful old city, I was supposed to be meeting a person inside a bookshop at 3:30. I show up at 3:25 and this guy comes up to me eagerly and says, "Hello, hello, welcome to my country," and I thought, oh, he looks as if he could be a student, he must be the guy. But I couldn't say, "Are you a friend of so-and-so, I'm Jane the (wink) archaeologist." He was trying to invite me back to his house, and then these 19-year-old army blokes walked in, and I just froze. But it turned out he only wanted to chat and practice his English. "How do you like my country?" he'd ask me, and I'd say, "Yes, beautiful country, wonderful archaeological sites ... and delicious dates." It's really difficult, you can't have normal conversations, in situations like this.

Did you feel you were being followed all the time?

When I heard men talking outside my hotel room, I became convinced they were going to charge through my door and arrest me. If I saw a policeman outside my hotel, I was convinced he was coming to charge me with spying. I burned the cryptic notes I had made, in a hotel ashtray, to avoid incriminating myself and any of the Iranians I came in contact with. I was told to talk to camera as much as possible while on location but I couldn't do pieces to camera in public spaces or inside my hotel rooms, which could have been bugged. I started to become immensely paranoid. I slept an average of four hours a night.

Kokan burns her reporting notes

Kokan burns her reporting notes.
I soon learned that Big Brother can take many different forms. I had young Iranians come up to me on a regular basis. Sometimes it was: "Hello. What is your country? We take photo together?" which was innocent enough. But then there were the more mysterious encounters. Outside a teahouse in Shiraz, I was approached by a young lady who told me her name was Fatima, who asked if she could walk with me and practice her English. I agreed. She was wearing the traditional head-to-toe chador, which fewer young women are seen wearing these days. "Welcome to Iran," she said. "What do you think of my country? Are we a nation of terrorists?" I quickly changed the subject. I had been warned that agents would try and find out what I was doing in Iran and had the firm impression she was checking me out. Knowing you're being watched is a very eerie feeling.

I knew people were going through my room -- my socks would be stuffed in the wrong drawer, my head scarves not folded back properly and put back in their original position, or my knapsack zipped up the wrong way. My tour guide, who was a nice guy basically, started to notice that I'd leave the hotel in the evenings after our group went to bed and began asking me awkward questions. I kept in communication with London through coded emails sent from Internet cafés. Phone numbers and vital addresses were memorized. I had set up a phony email account -- "Susan George" was my name -- and I corresponded with my producer, who also had a fake name -- she was "Julia Roberts" -- using a code. All of our messages were coded, including names, venues and telephone numbers. Still my tour guide tracked down the phone numbers of two of my interviewees and called them after I left. He must have been downloading my emails that came to me from London and figured out what was going on.

So there are a lot of Internet cafés?

Kokan  uses a secret email code

Kokan uses a secret email code devised to subvert government eavesdroppers.
Yes, in the major cities. They were full of young people, men and women. It was interesting because on buses in Tehran, women always sit in the back of the bus, but in Internet cafés, they didn't. Everyone would sit together, with headphones on, downloading Western music.

The youth of Iran can email their friends all around the world. They know what is going on in the world, love Western films and music, and desperately want more freedom. A recent state-controlled survey revealed that three-quarters of Iranians support the re-establishment of relations with the "Great Satan" of America.

But there has been a crackdown on Internet cafés -- about 400 closed in the last two and a half years in Tehran alone. They've got this new intelligence minister who's waged a war against Web sites and set up a commission to monitor the Web. People are being jailed for posting articles on the Web. Still, it's a significant way for people to communicate. The authorities monitor the phone system, so people set up their own systems of email attachments and share information that way.

You worked with Leila, the young woman who filmed the demonstration. What drives a woman like that to risk her life?

She's such a gutsy and beautiful woman. She told me she had been an actress and a dancer; she hadn't been a political activist forever. She just wanted to get the message out that this regime was barbaric.

Kokan keeps up her archeologist disguise

Kokan keeps up her archaeologist disguise, visiting Islamic Isfahan architecture sites.
You get the feeling that some of the students simply wake up one day and say, "I can't take this any more." They just want to have a life. It's a repressive country on so many levels where people don't have the freedom to express themselves. You can get flogged or put in jail for flirting with someone of the opposite sex in public or listening to Western music or being caught with a cold beer. I thought I would investigate the cinema scene, but it was all action, Rambo-Iranian-style movies re-creating the Iran-Iraq war, which ended in 1988.

On every street corner, it seemed, I was greeted by gigantic posters and murals of the stern Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor, the equally fierce Ayatollah Khamenei. I bought myself a little wall hanging of Khomeini, actually. I mean how could I resist? He's on my mantle nestled between my two West Papuan witch doctors. He's actually looking down on me now as I am talking to you.

The young Iranians I interviewed are well informed. They are not crazy revolutionaries, and they know what's happening as far as international affairs are concerned. They don't want an Iraq-style invasion, and they certainly don't want American soldiers running around Tehran as if it were Baghdad.

Kokan traveling to Tehran

Kokan traveling to Iran's capital city, Tehran.
Many Iranians told me they wanted a velvet revolution as in the former Czechoslovakia. It's hard to tell what will happen because they're dealing with a brutal police state. Listen, in the Iranian penal code you've got specific instructions about how to execute adulterers: Men will be buried up to their waists and women up to their breasts for the purposes of execution by stoning; the stones should not be large enough to kill the person by one or two strikes, nor should they be so small that they could not be defined as stones.

Part of your story was reported abroad, in Amsterdam, with a defector from the Iranian intelligence service. Was it a relief to work there, after being undercover in Iran?

It was even more surreal! I found this ex-Iranian intelligence officer who wanted to go on the record and spill the beans. This guy, Hamid Zakeri, who looks like an Iranian version of Don Johnson, he's got these dark shades on, immaculately blow dried hair, trench coat and expensive Italian shoes. I'm told to meet him at a "safe house," as Zakeri wants to make sure we won't be followed, so my production company sets it up for me to go meet him at this brothel in the red-light district. We had our choice of rooms, the Lollipop room or the Rembrandt room, and we selected the latter. This girl in a rubber miniskirt with matching bra meets us at the door. I'm with a female colleague who is carrying an oversized tripod, and I'm carrying the camera -- she probably thought we were in town to make a pornographic film. It was a far cry from Tehran.

What are you doing next?

I really would like to get a "normal" job where I am not taking these kinds of risks. But I'm going back to the Balkans to investigate alleged al Qaeda training camps in Bosnia and Kosovo. I suppose my mother will be happy -- she's from neighboring Croatia, and as far as she's concerned, I'll be safe there. She probably thinks the Balkans is a cakewalk. And by comparison to Iran, it is.

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