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.
Jane Kokan enters Iran on a group bus tour.
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
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?
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."
Posters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini are prominent
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
I realized that this was a huge story, and almost nobody was
You went in under false pretense -- breaking the law, in
fact. What did it feel like to be constantly worried about getting
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.
Kokan destroys all evidence of her unofficial reporting in
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
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?
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
Kokan's tour group stops at an ancient fort.
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?
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.
Kokan interviews a political dissident at a secret location
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.
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.
Kokan burns her reporting notes.
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?
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
Kokan uses a secret email code devised to subvert
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
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.
Kokan keeps up her archaeologist disguise,
visiting Islamic Isfahan architecture sites.
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.
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.
Kokan traveling to Iran's capital city, Tehran.
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,
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