Ottawa impotent in Kazemi case

August 4, 2004

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A handful of lessons are buried in the sorry state of Iran’s recent investigation and trial involving the death of Canadian photo- journalist Zahra Kazemi. They’re buried in the pile of lies and nonsense that’s often engrained in the not-so-free world, where, in my experience, up is certainly down if the right person says it’s so.

Kazemi died at the hands of Iranian interrogators last summer after photographing students demonstrating at a Tehran jail.

So lesson No. 1 seems to be, if you want to be a journalist in a place such as Iran, realize authorities may exact equal parts of blood for any ink you spill to reveal something as nebulous as the truth.

Canadians may find this quite infuriating, since Kazemi held Canadian citizenship. But in the past four years, Iran’s fundamentalist judiciary has all but destroyed that country’s independent press, closing scores of newspapers and jailing dozens of journalists who support Iran’s more reform-minded parliamentarians.

Further, truth in the Middle East, strange as this seems, often doesn’t matter. This is because while the West has inherited a Greco-Roman world view of guilt or innocence, the Middle East spins on an honour-shame axis.

There’s not a right or wrong way of doing things, as much as an honourable or dishonourable way. So lying, if it preserves group honour, is morally acceptable.

Lesson No. 2, then, is we need to understand how hugely important a culture’s mores are to its actions.

Let’s also remember the news media is kicked around in most places. In fact, only about 1.4 billion of Earth’s 6.4 billion people actually have access to a free press. Some 2.5 billion people live without a free press, and the other 2.5 billion live in countries where the media is only partially free.

Not surprisingly, most of these people live in the developing world.

So, lesson No. 3 might be, as terrible as the Kazemi murder is, if anything good is to come of it, the international community needs to place it in the light of broader needs and respond accordingly.

For example, with outside help, my newspaper employer, the independent Yemen Times, is spearheading Yemen’s first association of newspapers to help face pressures in that impoverished Muslim country.

Pressures like a government bill, now defeated, that told Yemen’s press to forfeit profits and donate to a fund that would protect journalists harassed by government officials. Follow the logic here. Pay me, so when I slap you around, there’s money available for your legal defence. Stunning.

The reality is, if international aid groups leave the world’s neediest media to fend for themselves, existing hand-to-mouth at best, then civil liberties that produce any country’s societal and economic well-being will never be created.

The last lessons are for Ottawa. Incredibly, just weeks ago, with the Kazemi affair hanging in the air like the Hindenburg, Canada’s ambassador to Iran, Philip McKinnon, reportedly told Iranian government officials that he’d like to see Canadian-Iranian trade increase.

Iran annually already receives hundreds of millions of dollars of Canadian grain, pulp and paper, and equipment related to oil and tele-communications.

Considering the Kazemi farce, why?

Instead of just wringing its hands and crying bloody murder, why won’t Ottawa stop working with Iranian metals and crude oil? Why not ban Persian rugs until Iran’s judiciary stops sweeping the truth about Kazemi’s death so conveniently underneath them? Why grant easy visas to Iranians, including 1,200 post-secondary students studying in Canada, among the largest student groups from anywhere?

Goodwill in any relationship needs to flow both ways. And if Ottawa is as outraged as it says it is over the Kazemi case, Iran should feel it.

Lesson No. 4, then, is say what you mean. And No. 5, mean what you say.

It’s important to understand why some other places don’t approach freedom of the press, or life in general, in such a straightforward manner. But in doing so, Ottawa shouldn’t think it needs to maintain any political niceties.

In the end, a place like Iran needs to start learning its own lessons about how other countries do things.

And if Canada isn’t willing to play political hardball when one of its own is so carelessly tossed to the wind, one has to wonder if a Canadian passport is not rather overrated.

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August 4, 2004 • Posted in ,
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