"They rang the doorbell on January 25. They introduced themselves as agents of the bank. My mother opened the door to them and I asked my brother, why would the bank clerks be coming here? He impulsively went to the staircase, and from there I heard him shout, ‘Yasaman, go!’
“Everything happened very quickly. One of the officers put a gun to my brother's forehead and warned him to keep quiet. I went straight to my room and locked the door, but another officer broke it down. There were three knocks, and then..."
Yasaman Khaleghian, a freelance reporter who writes about social issues in Iran, has finally left the country for good after being summoned and interrogated several times by the intelligence services. She had worked in the Iranian media for about nine years.
In January 2020, officers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps forced their way into the homes of several Iranian journalists, including Khaleghian, ransacking their properties and confiscating some of their personal belongings. Khaleghian was forced to endure several rounds of interrogation before finally being charged with "disturbing public opinion", "spreading lies" and “promoting corruption” through her articles, which had rightly accused the IRGC of shooting down the Ukrainian Airlines flight 752. In addition she was accused of posting a photo of herself without a headscarf online.
Khaleghian began her career in journalism at the age of 23, at the reformist newspaper Shargh. From there she went to Jahan-e Sanat newspaper, which was recently shut down by the authorities for questioning the official figures on Covid-19 cases in Iran. She then formally studied journalism while working with the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) on two-year photography projects, reporting on Iran’s deprived areas and border zones. Eventually this led to her becoming a full-fledged employee at ILNA.
In an exhaustive interview with IranWire's sister site Journalism is Not a Crime, Khalegian has described the cascade of factors that finally compelled her, against her will, to leave home: from restrictions on her ability to publish as a journalist to raids on her house by security agents, to hours of draining interrogations and finally, the mounting pressure to give a forced confession.
Acid Attacks and Living with Kulbars
Over the course of her career in Iran, Khaleghian was subjected on several occasions to anonymous threats. This included during her time preparing and publishing stories on social affairs for ILNA.
"My first problem with ILNA news agency,” she says, “was that there was no support when it was needed. I remember being threatened by fake [social media] accounts because of my reports and follow-ups on the acid attacks in Isfahan.
“The last caller told me, ‘If you don’t want your own face sprayed by acid, don’t chase this up.’ When I reported this to the news agency, they took no action. And the story of those acid attacks has still gone nowhere.”
Khalegian worked with with ILNA from August 2014 to October 2018. As part of her ongoing work documenting life in deprived parts of Iran, she covered the lives of the kulbars – or border couriers – in the country’s colder regions. "I was set to travel from Ardabil airport to Tehran,” she recalled, “when I was arrested by airport officials.
“As usual, management at ILNA did nothing after the news reached them. My colleagues in the economic division, with their connections to the local Chamber of Commerce, successfully petitioned for my release after one night of detention. Even my return ticket, I remember, was paid for by Ardabil Chamber of Commerce. When my report was eventually published, the agency had removed the most significant segments on the kulbars’ struggles.”
Later on Khalegian worked as a freelance journalist with various media outlets including Ravi Online, and built up her Instagram presence to reach people in deprived, remote locations, especially earthquake-stricken areas.
“My story reached its climax after the Kermanshah earthquake [of 2017]. It seemed that my reporting on the quake and the terrible situation of the victims was an issue for some people, and I began to come under pressure.
“This continued until June 2018, when an Afghan girl was raped in Khomeini Shahr. I followed up on the story as best I could, and publishing piece of news led to me getting a direct threat over the phone from the Welfare Organization. ‘I’ll find a way to get you fired!’ he said. Later, he denied it.”
The lack of support from management at ILNA at the same time as her work was being censored made working life difficult for Khalegian. Another of her important articles, on the plight of an Afghan child whose father was part of the Shia militias defending the shrines in Syria, was published with key parts of the text removed. “This was done by the editor-in-chief of ILNA for social affairs at the time,” she says, “and the tension between me, the editor-in-chief and the CEO worsened. This prepared the ground for my expulsion from ILNA."
Controversial Report of a Local Disaster
In May 2018, an apparent arson attack by a Khuzestan 16-year-old killed 11 people and left others with third-degree burns in the city of Ahvaz. Khalegian grabbed her backpack and went straight there to report on the incident. On May 4, ILNA published a report under the headline Retribution Won’t Come From Poverty.
“Before going to Ahvaz,” Khalegian says, “the news agency gave me a list of people from the security agencies or the government to interview. But I wanted to go to Ahvaz to report in the field, get the truth behind the story and study the social situation.
“Following the report’s publication, pressure on the agency by the security services increased, and a lot of my words were later removed by ILNA.”
Not long after this incident, in an interview with an official from the Welfare Organization, Khalegian directly quoted them as having used the term "sex worker". Despite it being their words, it was Khalegian who received multiple threats of dismissal for this apparent transgression. After that incident she was banned from entering the Welfare Organization’s premises, and her name was added to the long list of journalists barred from talking to it spokespeople.
Sudden Dismissal from ILNA
"One day,” Khalegian recalls, “I was called to the CEO's office and was told to go and report on the activities of a charity based on the outskirts of the city.
“I got to the place but instead, saw a large number of men in IRGC uniforms. I didn’t understand why I needed to be here, but in any case, they got to work. The relief they provided people was not humanitarian in any way. We came to one neighborhood that they refused to help because they were Afghans."
On arriving back at ILNA’s offices, Yasaman announced that she would not be writing a story about the IRGC’s ‘charity’ workers. "Massoud Heydari, the CEO, came to my desk and insisted that I write the report,” she says. “He told me directly that we had business with them and that I had to write about them. But I maintained that it was not possible for me to write this report, and that if he was looking for one, he would have to send a different reporter. He fired me then and there, and I packed up and left the offices."
A few days later, Yasman returned to ILNA on the same editor’s request and was offered a contract for the first six months of the year (it was already the fifth month of the year). "That is to say,” she says, “when we signed, there was only one month left. After this incident, neither the editor nor the secretary nor the director spoke to me. My reports were published every now and then, though the important stories I drafted about female genital mutilation were never to be published. A month later, just after the end of the Tasu’a and Ashura holidays, they called me to proclaim the director was no longer prepared to work with me.”
A Ring at the Doorbell
Shortly after being fired from ILNA, Khalegian launched a project with the video team of the newspaper Iran, which was formally closed within three months with the resignation of all its members. She then briefly joined the Ravi network and produced a video report on acts of self-immolation by women in the village of Dishmuk in Boyer-Ahmad province.
Then on January 26, the doorbell rang, and Khalegian’s life took a turn for the surreal. On that day, eight men and a woman barreled into her family home and turned the place upside down, searching it for more than four hours. Then another team arrived who emptied Khalegian’s cellphone and laptop of information.
"Shortly afterwards,” she recalls, “a man entered the house with two bodyguards and introduced himself as a representative for the prosecutor. As soon as he entered the house, he said, 'Where is our guest?'. They showed me to him. He said, 'Take her away, get the information from her. Do not keep her here.' At that moment, a 33-year-old man, who was later present at every stage of my interrogation, whispered something in the representative's ear, to which he replied, 'Handcuff her; we can keep her in her room until we finish our work.' They eventually left our house at 2:30pm."
The Long Attempt to Force a Confession
Khalegian first interrogation session was held in South Kargar Street, Tehran, exactly one week after the raid. During this seven-hour ordeal Khalegian was initially charged with "collaborating with the People’s Mojahedin Organization", which she says is often the first one to be levelled against detainees.
The questioning continued for eight weeks. "Once a week for two months” Khalegian says, “for six or seven hours at a time, I was interrogated in the same place on South Kargar Street. At every stage of the interrogation, one of the interrogators would say, 'With what you have done, your sentence is going to be well over 10 years.’
“One day I was attacked with insults by the interrogator in order to coerce me into confessing that I had attended the protest rallies in November 2019. It went so far that he threw a cup of hot tea at me, but in the end, I wrote nothing."
Khalegian’s interrogators also threatened to bring her mother and brother in for interrogation because of her resistance to making a confession. "The interrogator once said, 'We’ll bring your mother here, to console her!'” she says. “A sentence I will never forget. After the third session, one of my relatives, who I won’t name, was summoned for questioning and pressured for more than seven hours to write statements against me."
One of the accusations Khalegian’s interrogators emphasized was her having "portrayed a dark image" of Iranian society in her reports about the kulbars, child marriage and other social phenomena, which had all been published in the country’s state-sanctioned media.
Torturers Seize on Flight 752
Another of the main allegations made against Khalegian during her interrogation, she said, was erroneous reporting of the downing of flight 752 over Tehran in January. “During interrogations,” she says, “they repeatedly demanded to know why in the early hours that followed that incident, on my Instagram page, I had emphasized that it was not a technical defect and had insisted for several days that it must have been intentional. When I said, ‘You eventually announced it was the fault of the IRGC, so what’s this about?’ they told me 'We apologized, but you spread hatred against the Guards.’
"Another of the questions was why I was not saddened by the death of Ghasem Soleimani, when I was saddened by the November 2019 deaths and supported those people. They asked why I had participated in the mourning for Pouya Bakhtiari but not in the funeral of Ghasem Soleimani! During all those interrogation sessions, one of them repeatedly asked me, 'Do you want to be sent to a reputable media outlet and hold down a good job?’ but I was adamant that my career in the Iranian media was over.
The IRGC’s intelligence agents had confiscated all kinds of devices from the arrested journalists, including cell phones, laptops, external hard drives, and even flash drives. They used the information these contained to file cases against them. Khalegian says her private photos and chats were weaponized against her during the interrogation.
Finally Fleeing the Country
In March 2020, at the height of public and official panic about the spread of coronavirus in Iran, Khalegian attended what would prove to be her last interrogation.
“One of the interrogators was ill and coughing,” she says. “He laughed during the interrogation and told me not to be afraid: 'I do not have coronavirus.' With the same hand he was holding his handkerchief with, he placed the interrogation sheet in front of me, while aware of my own respiratory problem.
“They emphasized at this meeting that until the day of the trial I would be banned from working in the media or even posting on Instagram. Then in April, they finally called our home and made an appointment to meet with my mother at the entrance of a subway station in south Tehran.
“My mother got out of our car and got into theirs. Two men sitting in the front seats handed my laptop back to her and wrote her a receipt. When my mother asked why they weren’t giving back my passport and phone, one of the officers shouted at her, 'Our work with her is not over. If you don’t want the laptop, leave it here and get out!’
“Later, when I checked the laptop, I found important parts of the archive of my two years’ worth of photography, writing and audio recording, all in the deprived areas and on the borders, had been removed.”
In late May, Khalegian’s former interrogators summoned her to the office to receive her cell phone, memory sticks and passport. During that meeting, Khalegian learned that her case had been sent to the Culture and Media Court.
I Loved my Profession
"I was just a journalist, and a children’s rights activist," says Khalegian, who has now left the country. "I loved living in Iran, despite all the pressure on me, because I loved my profession: I love news, reporting and being among the people.
“But over the last couple of years, since my dismissal, most outlets have refused to work with a journalist who has not remained silent in the face of the oppression of her colleagues. Last year, I was unemployed, homeless and banned from work. A career in the Iranian media was over for me. Knowing that a case was also being pursued gainst me, the best thing for me to do was to leave the country. So I left behind all those years of effort, and said goodbye to Iran.”