Commentary: CNN’s prime time interview with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his final official trip to New York in September 2012, for many who follow Iran’s human rights crisis, seemed to be a great opportunity to shed some light on the eight years of worsening human rights violations during his time in office. Piers Morgan’s September 24 interview, however, disappointed his viewers and elicited no revelations from the infamously volatile president.
Mr. Morgan seemed surprisingly unprepared and was not only incapable of asking proper follow-up questions but also got the facts wrong at one point in the interview. This, coupled with Ahmadinejad’s skillful manipulation of language, playing his usual game of hypotheticals, off-topic responses, and challenges to the interviewer, led to yet another series of dodged questions, vague answers, and shirked responsibilities.
A prime example of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s masterful manipulation was evidenced by his response to CNN’s Piers Morgan’s question about the right to protest.
“[F]undamentally, I do agree certainly people must be allowed to express their own opinions freely. Freedom is part of the essential rights of all nations. … No one has the right to take that away,” Mr. Ahmadinejad answered.
He tried to deflect Mr. Morgan’s question using his practiced technique of speaking in platitudes. As detailed in the Reporters’ Guide: How to Interview Iranian Officials on Human Rights Issues, published by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran in September 2010, “When asked a question, [Mr. Ahmadinejad] lectures, turning the question towards other subjects, puts responsibility and accountability on other power players in Iran, and ultimately does not respond [to] the question or acknowledge the issue.”
In his September 24, 2012, interview, as Mr. Morgan asked a follow-up question on imprisoned protesters in Iran, Mr. Ahmadinejad fell back on his favorite catch-all: blaming the Judiciary.
“In Iran, the judicial branch is not under the power of the government, of the administration. They have their own laws and that’s what they follow. And we have no interference in that.”
While Iran’s Judiciary is ostensibly independent from its executive branch, which Mr. Ahmadinejad heads, it is the Ministry of Intelligence that handles most political cases in Iran, including those of protesters. The Ministry of Intelligence is part of the executive branch, and ultimately answers to none other than President Ahmadinejad.
In interviews and speeches, Mr. Ahmadinejad often tries to avoid responsibility for political prisoners by blaming everything on the Judiciary and repeating that he does not interfere in their business. As president, Mr. Ahmadinejad may not be able to command other branches of the government, but he is able to publicly request that other state entities be responsible for their actions. Over the eight years of his presidency, Iran’s intelligence service and the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization have together orchestrated a massive crackdown on Iranian civil society and the human rights community, and Mr. Ahmadinejad has never, ever, even once, taken responsibility for any of their wrongdoings.
In his September 24 interview, Mr. Morgan allowed Mr. Ahmadinejad to punt the question about imprisoned protesters, and instead asked him about his personal feelings on the matter. Mr. Ahmadinejad seized the opportunity to lecture about topics of his choosing.
Since the disputed presidential election of 2009, Iranian opposition groups have been completely unable to obtain permits for peaceful protests. Many of those who protested peacefully in 2009 remain in prison, including high-ranking political figures, student leaders, and activists.
What could Mr. Morgan have asked as a follow-up question? Perhaps why, instead of using his executive power to request accountability from the judicial branch, Mr. Ahmadinejad nominated former Tehran Prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi to head Iran’s Social Security Organization.
That name might sound familiar. As Tehran Prosecutor during the time of the 2009 election, Mr. Mortazavi led the charge to shut down the peaceful post-election protests and was allegedly responsible for an order that contributed to the deaths of at least four young Iranian protesters and for the continuing illegal house arrest of the opposition leaders who ran against Mr. Ahmadinejad. A case against Mr. Mortazavi, a man who is called “butcher of the press” for shutting down more than 100 publications over the past 10 years, was still open in the Judiciary when Mr. Ahmadinejad appointed him to high office in his administration. How could he get away with that?
His second term is coming to an end, and the entire time, two of his opponents in the 2009 election have been under house arrest and his major critics reside in prison. His presidency could have been very different if they were free, and that’s precisely why they remain in prison now.
His silence towards the Judiciary calls into question his honesty and lack of leadership, and makes him just as responsible for these human rights violations as he claims the Judiciary to be. As president, he may not be able to order the Judiciary to change its policies, but he can certainly request publicly that it stop violating human rights. He has not even done that, nothing, never.
The human rights community expects media with access to Mr. Ahmadinejad to hold him accountable for the human rights violations committed under his stewardship of Iran. Interviewers like Mr. Morgan have a rare chance to shed light on the Iranian regime’s atrocities, and yet they repeatedly allow Mr. Ahmadinejad to turn interviews to his advantage.
With questions like “How many times in your life … have you been properly in love?”, Mr. Morgan’s September 24 interview humanized Mr. Ahmadinejad at a time when his repressive policies, increased arrests of peaceful activists, extreme censorship, and skyrocketing execution rate show that he leads one of the most repressive governments in recent history.
The Campaign recently released a short video highlighting some of the myriad lies the media have allowed Mr. Ahmadinejad to tell uncontested on the air. In the video, five anti-war Iranian-American human rights activists respond to his distortions, juxtaposing facts with his deceptive statements.
But these activists don’t have the millions of viewers Mr. Morgan reaches at CNN. When broadcast media allow softball questions, lack of follow-up, and even sloppy fact-checking—like asking Mr. Ahmadinejad about a nonexistent law banning Iranian women from skiing—to derail an interview with one of the greatest human rights violators of our time, the Iranian human rights community is left with little hope for him to ever be called to account. A sorry day for journalism, for human rights, and for all those who expect the media to hold the powerful accountable.