By Mohammad Homaeefar

Guardian reporter speaks out on Neda Agha-Soltan, Jamal Khashoggi, Iran International TV, Masih Alinejad

March 3, 2020 - 9:0

TEHRAN — Guardian journalist Saeed Kamali Dehghan has opened up about an HBO documentary film he co-produced about Neda Agha-Soltan, an Iranian woman who was shot dead in Tehran on June 20, 2009 during the post-election unrest, saying, “I regret making that documentary because I was naive to believe the Western narrative about her death.”

“The Western interest in my work started very early on, not far from the time I made what I now call the wrong documentary on Neda,” Kamali Dehghan told the Tehran Times. “I was sent to Iran as a journalist to naively humanize their narrative but I didn’t know what their narrative was.” 

Neda Agha-Soltan’s death drew worldwide attention back in 2009, when her death was captured on video and broadcast over the internet. As captured on the video, she collapsed to the ground after being shot in the chest and bled to death while it seemed as though she was looking to the camera.

The documentary Kamali Dehghan was referring to is called “For Neda”. It was directed by Antony Thomas and partly filmed by Kamali Dehghan, who came to Iran to secretly interview Neda’s family and film her house and personal life prior to her death. For Neda was released in June 2010, a year after her death.

“When they got my footage from me, from then on I was nobody and I was deeply upset about the film, even though I didn’t show it at the time,” Kamali Dehghan said about his role in making that documentary.

“The reality is I have no idea who killed Neda, whereas Antony Thomas’s film points the fingers at the Iranian rulers,” he stated.

At the beginning of the documentary, which runs for 67 minutes, the 24-year-old Kamali Dehghan is introduced as a “strong candidate” who emerged while no other journalist dared to do the job of interviewing Neda’s family out of fear of being arrested by Iranian intelligence and security forces.

“He accepted the challenge,” said the narrator, Shohreh Aghdashloo. “Saeed had been in Iran during the protests, reporting for the London Guardian and CNN. He was also the first person to discover Neda’s family name, and the apartment where she’d lived with her parents and a younger brother.”

“On November 17th, Saeed left for Tehran via Paris and Dubai, armed only with a list of questions for Neda’s family. Early on the morning of November 20th he emailed back with a news that he got safely through customs and security and was now ready to begin his assignment in Tehran.”

Then Kamali Dehghan enters the script: “I was completely alone, facing the greatest challenge of my life. First, I contacted Neda’s brother. Four days later, I got a message that the family had agreed to meet me. I remember that first night. I was very nervous. My stomach was churning. As I rang the bell, I was sure that someone from the intelligence service would appear at any moment.”

“The story of me is like the story of Masih Alinejad, but I chose not to become the kind of person Masih Alinejad represents today,” says the Guardian journalist.

Now, almost 10 years after the documentary was released, he says he was wrong to be involved in it because there’s “no credible evidence” Neda was killed by the Islamic Republic forces or anyone tied with the Iranian government.

“The story of me is like the story of Masih Alinejad,” he said, referring to a U.S.-based Iranian dissident who is well-known for her anti-Islamic Republic activities, including a campaign she launched in 2014 called “My Stealthy Freedom”.

“But God willing, I managed to detect this a bit later on,” said Kamali Dehghan. “I chose not to become the kind of person Masih Alinejad represents today. We both have similarities, we’re both emotional and prone to manipulation.”

He did not further elaborate what he meant.

This is not the first time Kamali Dehghan comes clean about an important issue. He used to cover Iran for the Guardian and initially got himself in trouble by two articles he wrote for the daily, revealing that London-based broadcaster Iran International was funded by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS).

His first article on the anti-Iran channel was published on October 2, 2018, the day Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and was murdered brutally by the Saudis.

In that article, he highlighted “the growing influence of Saudi-linked stations operating from London”, where two other major Farsi-language channels, namely the BBC Persian and Manoto TV, are also based.

He pointed out that Iran International pays generous salaries to employees, and then cited a source close to MBS as saying that the channel’s money came from the Saudi royal court, estimated to be about $250m. “The money is coming from Saudi Arabia, it is from the royal court,” he quoted the source as saying.

The second article was published on October 31, long after the first. In that article, Kamali Dehghan offered more details about the Saudi regime’s links to Iran International, and mentioned Khashoggi several times to foreshadow a shocking disclosure days later.

Citing the source, he said Saud al-Qahtani, a close advisor to MBS at the time who reportedly oversaw the killing of Khashoggi, was involved in the funding behind Iran International. “You could have a larger picture about how those kids [Saudi media moguls] with that money being thrown around [by Prince Mohammed] trying to change the world by buying media … It is money coming from the royal court,” he quoted the source as saying.

Finally, on November 9, 2018, he identified his source as Jamal Khashoggi, but also claimed in a tweet that the Washington Post journalist was killed because of speaking to him about the Iran International issue.

“I can confirm that Jamal Khashoggi was killed because of speaking to me on the phone from Istanbul in the morning on 26 September, revealing that London-based Iran International TV was funded by Mohammad bin Salman and Saud al-Qahtani,” he wrote. 

He then posted a series of tweets indicating he felt deeply threatened. “My request to all family and friends is not to contact me at this moment, except very trusted one. My mum knows how to contact me. I trust my mum and a few people here,” he tweeted.

Initially, there was “resistance [against] me following up on the story from some editors but an intervention by editor-in-chief Ms. [Katharine] Viner allowed me to publish my second article on Iran International,” said Kamali Dehghan.

However, the tweets were deleted soon afterwards. The Guardian, according to him, has silenced him for over a year. It’s also important to note that no major media outlet in the world covered the story.

Fed up with the situation, Kamali Dehghan went public with the mental torment he went through since then. He tweeted that he was in Nightingale hospital after experiencing serious mental health problems, saying the newspaper has placed a “de facto ban” on him writing about Iran.

The Guardian did not respond to a request for comment. 

However, Kamali Dehghan told the Tehran Times that prior to Khashoggi’s death, nobody at the newspaper knew that he was his source. “The interview was taped,” he confirmed. “After his death, I revealed to editors that he was my source.”

Asked to elaborate on his Iran International articles, he said, “The Guardian published my [first] article because it valued it newsworthy.”

Initially, he continued, there was “resistance [against] me following up on the story from some editors but an intervention by editor-in-chief Ms. [Katharine] Viner allowed me to publish my second article on Iran International.”

‘My enemies discredited me in the eyes of my employer’

He also insisted that his enemies, who are mad at him for writing about Iran International, have contacted the Guardian and managed to “discredit me in the eyes of my employer.”

“The Guardian never gave me a single opportunity to defend myself. Instead they silenced my voice and imposed a de facto ban on me writing about Iran.”

“I believe Iran International and others including Western intelligence services managed to discredit me in the eyes of my employer,” he said, reiterating, “I believe the intelligence services of the UK, helped with their allies, are intent to make my life hell in London.”

“I’m sure western intelligence services kept close eyes on my writing from early on in my career, but I’m happy that I’ve turned out to be a huge disappointment to them,” he added.

He said, however, that the Guardian “seems to have bought into those allegations against me including bogus claims that I am an agent of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Kamali Dehghan noted that the Guardian’s silencing of him by not allowing him to report on Iran has exacerbated his mental health problems.

On February 24, he tweeted that “a decision by the Guardian to impose a de facto ban on me writing about Iran has led to my current severe mental health status.”

What happened to me is “the result of abuse of psychiatry,” he told the Tehran Times. “For example, in 2018, I came under huge attacks because of my Iran International history and my enemies created an environment that made me doubt everything and everyone.”

“As a result, I had a psychotic episode and was sectioned for two weeks. But make no mistake, I am a victim of abuse of psychiatry and my opponents use that as a pretext to silence my voice.”

“I believe the intelligence services of the UK, helped with their allies, are intent to make my life hell in London,” he said.

Ever since he disclosed the links between the Saudi regime and Iran International, Kamali Dehghan has been viciously attacked by some journalists, Iranian dissidents and online trolls who have smeared him and called him names.

The Jerusalem Post also ran a hit piece on him on Friday with the same attitude, citing Iranian dissidents to destroy his credibility on the matter.

“Am I a spy, a liar, psychotic, schizophrenic, mentally disturbed, an attention seeker, a loser, or am I just a journalist silenced by his employer and intelligence services?” read his latest tweet, which was posted last week. “You decide. This is your Dreyfus affair moment in some ways, this time with a Muslim Iranian journalist.”

Kamali Dehghan was not the only person who said Khashoggi was his unnamed source after the Arab journalist’s death.

Thomas Friedman, a New York Times Op-Ed columnist, also revealed on October 8, 2018 that Khashoggi was the unnamed source he had earlier quoted in a column about MBS.

“My views on Saudi Arabia are my own, but Jamal had a big impact on them,” Friedman wrote in the New York Times. “[Jamal] believed that MBS needed a lot of coaching, because he had a dark side and was too isolated inside a small ruling circle.”

As the year went on, Friedman continued, “Jamal came to believe that MBS’s dark side was completely taking over.”

On 12 November 2018, days after Kamali Dehghan’s second article was published, Iran International made a statement on their website in which it denied that it had any connection to Saudi Arabia or MBS.

But Negar Mortazavi, a former reporter for Iran International, told the Wall Street Journal in early 2019 that she left the channel the previous year because “their editorial direction is increasingly influenced by Saudi foreign policy.”

Saudi Arabia is making “a systematic and very persistent push in a new direction in the media sphere,” said Mortazavi. “The Saudis want influence and credibility, and are paying a lot for it.”

Asked by a Twitter user whether the story in the Guardian on the $250 million financing by Saudi nationals in Iran International is correct, she replied judiciously: “Guardian is a credible news outlet.”

MH/PA

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