Ambeyi Ligabo, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, spoke to IRIN while in Iran on his first-ever visit. In what is one of the most symbolic and important moves to address human rights in the country, the Iranian government has invited Ligabo on a fact-gathering mission. As well as meeting imprisoned journalists, students and government officials, Ligabo will investigate discrimination, threats or use of violence and harassment directed at those who have peacefully expressed their opinions.
Ligabo's long-awaited visit - already once postponed - comes at a critical time for Iranian human rights, which have been propelled into the spotlight by Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, the death of the Canadian photojournalist, Zahra Kazemi, and more recently the arrest of five new members of the Office to Consolidate Unity - the main student reform movement.
QUESTION: You've been meeting a wide range of people here - whom have you met?
ANSWER: I have met quite a broad section of people, ranging from senior government officials, members of the civil societies, students and other individuals who I thought would be important in getting some facts about my mission.
Q: What were the results of your discussions with Shirin Ebadi?
A: Shirin Ebadi, as you know, has done great work with regard to the rights of women, and in the struggle of human rights and the right of freedom of opinion in general, and we had quite exhaustive discussions, which ranged on various issues with regard to the problem facing newspapers in this country, women generally, and the way forward with regard to what is necessary to help the process move forward.
Q: What way forward do you think that is?
A: The way forward for the Iranian government is that it's important they work together with the civil societies, with the human rights groups in this country, and also with the Commission on Human Rights to improve on various obstacles that are impediments to the right to freedom of opinion generally in the country.
Q: What impact, if any, do you think Shirin Ebadi's winning the Nobel Peace prize will have on freedom of expression and human rights in Iran?
A: I think it will have quite an impact. Here is a lady whose life she has dedicated to fighting for various discriminative acts against women. Here is a lady who has fought extensively to help those whose rights, either in court or generally, have been violated, and she won the Nobel Peace prize. This sends a very clear signal that the struggle she's waging is not a one person's struggle. It is a global issue and it's an issue which everybody in the international community cherishes, and it has sent clear signals to even various groups in Iran who may have thought her struggle is in vain. It has indicated to them that this is a struggle which has to go forward, and I think that [her] winning the Nobel Peace prize will have a very, very great impact.
Q: What is the main message you have been hearing from civil organisations?
A: Civil organisations believe that there are various obstacles, administratively, that are hindering their free expression of ideas, and they believe that some of the acts are done not based on the constitution, but some are based on decisions that are made administratively, and these are areas whereby they believe some changes are necessary.
Q: On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch [HRW] called on you to investigate cases of Iranians jailed for peacefully expressing their views. What are your thoughts on this and are you going to investigate?
A: Yes, I believe that I have a number of people who are alleged to be confined or arrested because of expressing freely their views in papers, and I think I will have the opportunity to visit some of those in prison, and the government has agreed and will facilitate my meeting those people on Saturday.
Q: What is the message you are going to give to the imprisoned journalists you meet?
A: I will meet them and discuss with them exactly what they have been accused of. I will also try to find out from them personally what they think their offence was, and I will also compare this with what the government has told me.
Q: And how do you think you can help them?
A: I think I will have to come up with proposals and recommendations, which I will bring to the government, and this I will be able to let you know at the end of my mission.
Q: What have the students been saying to you?
A: The students have talked to me. I have met some of them who had just been released, and some of them have told me also that they were picked [up] from university and that they have been accused of endangering national security - I don't think they did anything, according to them, that could be construed as a danger to national security. I have talked to them and I am still talking to them. I will have a meeting with some of them again this evening.
Q: How satisfied are you with Iran's response to the death of Zahra Kazemi?
A: They have given their explanation, but I have brought up other issues particularly based on the report and the investigation of members of Article 90 [a parliamentary body with a focus on human rights]. I have also brought up the issue that the investigation needs to be done by an independent group. I have also brought up the issue that I believe that there might not have been any legal paces to denying the relatives of Zahra Kazemi to take the body and bury it in Canada according to their wishes. And we are still discussing this issue with the Iranian authorities and we shall see how the discussion unfolds.
Q: What steps need to be taken for greater press freedom in Iran?
A: I think there needs to be open, candid, transparent discussions in Iran, which will involve the government, the civil societies, the Pars association, the students and any other entities that are interested, and this should be open so people can talk freely, and this will help the whole movement forward so that people are free to express themselves without fear.
Q: Can you tell me the importance of the Pars society?
A: The Pars society, as you know, are eminent lawyers, and the discussion I had with them was quite interesting, exhaustive and quite informative, because they themselves are not a political organisation, and they brought up issues solidly based on their understanding of the legal problems with regard to the freedom of opinion and expression in this country.
Q: How can the UN help to improve freedom of expression in Iran?
A: We are ready to work with the government of Iran. We - the UN Commission on Human Rights - are ready to extend certain technical programmes to the government of Iran. We are ready to reactivate the working groups so that various technical programmes involving education programmes can create awareness with regards to human rights, particularly in the judiciary, in the police force and law enforcement agencies. This is when the UN is ready to cooperate, and when I bring up my report I will come up with concrete proposals and recommendations on how the UN can work with the Iranian government. But all this, as you know very well, depends on the government. It is for the government to ask us to help, we cannot impose our help - the UN cannot impose its will on any government - whether it's the government of Iran or any other.
Q: What role do you think a wider and more pluralistic media could play in Iran?
A: I think first of all, the right to freedom of opinion revolves on free ideas and this is normally done better through the media - a media which is quite pluralistic, which has no impediment. This is a tool of forward development, it is a tool of more innovative thinking, and this, I believe, is an area the government should look into, and I believe that expansion of avenues of expression of ideas of the media will go a long way to helping the country develop further.
Q: Are the press laws in Iran too stringent?
A: Well, by talking of stringent or not stringent, you have to make a comparative analysis. Stringent compared to what? Every country has its own constitution, has its own values, its own cultures and traditions. However, I believe in Iran, society itself, even tradition itself and religion itself, does not prohibit the free expression of ideas.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions