As a young man in Iran at the turn of the century, Omid Memarian was starting out in his journalistic career and fascinated by political issues in the country. As such, like many others he remembers going to the newspaper kiosk on the morning of July 10, 1999, after the reformist newspaper Khordad published an extraordinary front-page story and picture spread detailing the horrendous attack on Tehran University by the Islamic Republic’s security forces. That day Khordad went to a second edition but not long afterwards, it would be closed down by the authorities for good.
IranWire’s new documentary, Iran’s Bloody Friday: A Photographer Remembers, tells the story of Javad Montazeri and Asieh Amini: two young journalists who covered the attack on the dormitory and ensuing protests for Iranian and international media. The pair faced threats and intimidation for their work and were eventually forced to leave the country.
For Memarian, who also fled Iran after being arrested and tortured by the regime for his social commentaries in 2004, the film has brought back painful memories. “It was a chilling story,” he told IranWire, “told by two people who lived every moment of that tragic incident.
“Many people might have forgotten the brutal crackdown on Tehran University in 1999, but the documentary brings back these very dark and dramatic times, and the cruelty of the Islamic Republic’s intelligence agents against the younger generation who were hopeful that this new government [led by reformist President Khatami] might be a different one. It was the first time they tasted that level of brutality in Iran.”
Javad Montazeri’s photos of the destruction at Tehran University dormitory, and the beaten and bloodied bodies of the students, caused a sensation in Iran and exacerbated calls for democratic reform on the streets. Months later Khordad was shut down by Iran’s Special Clerical Court and its publisher and editor-in-chief, the cleric Abdollah Nouri, was sentenced to five years in jail.
In his video testimony for IranWire, Montazeri recalls uncertainty at the newspaper’s offices over whether or not they should publish the photos, and his insistence that they should be made public. “People remember the photos that Javad took,” says Memarian. “They belong to history.
“Javad and Asieh went to the frontline despite all the dangers. Watching this later, you realise you forget what it takes for these people to do their job. It was discomfiting to hear what they went through. The photos Javad took are part of our memory but we didn’t know the back-story. The film also highlights their courage and humanity, and their sense of responsibility to the truth.
“To do a job in circumstances like this requires the highest level of commitment. I’m so proud to see that there are people who, in times of chaos and tragedy and despite the personal costs, take on that responsibility and make something that stays for generations.”
Memarian was, he says, a “curious observer” at the time and working for a different publication that did not cover the incident as fully, largely due to a lack of contacts at Tehran University. “Javad’s photos,” he said, “were the raw, naked truth of that tragedy.”
The harassment and threats Montazeri and Amini were subjected to by the Revolutionary Guards and riot police were a precursor to far harsher, more brutal crackdowns on the Iranian press in years to come. Many independent publications were shut down overnight and a new press law was passed in the Iranian parliament, severely curtailing freedom of the press.
“It was at that moment,” Memarian says, “that the regime understood the power of media and it was determined then that the regime could not survive if the newspapers were alive. That’s why they went after them, one by one, and shut them down. That small window of limited freedom never came back to the Iranian media.”
In October 2004, Memarian was arrested over a series of online commentaries he had published on social issues and youth movements in Iran. The publications, he says, were not “offensive” or critical of the regime, but had been picked up by anti-regime platforms, leading to him being charged with spreading a "dark picture of the country and stoking women's issues”. He was detained on the orders of the Tehran Prosecutor’s Office until December that year and along with other journalists, was subjected to torture and solitary confinement, and forced to write a false confession.
On being released, Memarian took the same painful decision as Montazeri and Amini before him to leave the country. “It was a very personal decision for me to leave,” he says. “I saw that it would be difficult for me to work because I’d be constantly under their watch. I was in despair, and very despondent. I wanted to pursue my higher education so at the first opportunity, I left.
“To work as a journalist in a foreign country, in your second language, is a difficult task. But we try our best. It gave me perspective and I learned so much.”
Since moving to the United States, Memarian has worked as a freelance journalist for BBC Persian and the IPS (Inter Press Service) news agency Rooz Online, with published work in the New York Times, Time, Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal. He remains a staunch advocate for freedom of speech and in 2005 he received the Human Rights Defender Award, Human Rights Watch's highest honor, for his work as a reporter and human rights activist.
Despite the near-impossibility of rigorous and impartial reporting inside the Islamic Republic, he says, some young journalists in Iran still try to communicate the truth through clandestine means. “We still have courageous reporters who, even though they can’t publish their stuff, put it on their social media or share it with others,” he says. “The institution has become weaker but still they continue, because they believe. I think it’s wonderful: it shows the level of resilience and pride of Iranian journalists.
“It’s a miracle that they do this. I just hope that things change for them and they can work in a more secure, respectable environment and enjoy their jobs. One day, I hope that financially and professionally, they get what they deserve.”