Editor's Note: David Fitzpatrick was a producer for CBS News based in London during the Iranian revolution and hostage taking crisis. He spent 26 years at CBS News before joining CNN in 2001
CNN Special Investigations Unit
The events playing out on the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities offer an eerie mirror image of the revolution that brought the Ayatollah Khomeni to power in 1979.
Protestors are surging through the streets, international governments are unsure how or even if they should act and Iranian politics are as difficult as ever to decipher from abroad.
There is also another constant that is clear over the course of three decades: the ability of the authoritarian Iranian government to close down international journalists at the precise moment when objective observation of stark events on the ground is needed the most.
I know. I was in Tehran and other Iranian cities for months in 1979 and 1980. I was part of a very large contingent of international broadcast journalists allowed into the country just as the American hostages were being taken at the U.S. Embassy.
There seemed to be no limit on the amount of personnel we were allowed to bring in. For CBS News, where I worked, I think we had close to 50 people brought in from England (where I was based), the U.S., Germany, France and nearly every other international bureau where CBS News had set up shop.
We were not unusual in the least. Both ABC News and NBC News flew in truckloads of people. All the major U.S. networks had producers like me, correspondents, cameramen, editors, technicians and even administrators. At its peak, it’s a reasonable to suppose that nearly 200 men and women were working for the then Big Three broadcast networks inside Iran.
All of us then—as are international journalists today—were inside the country at the whim of the Ministry of Guidance—that wonderful, inapt name given to the bureaucracy in charge of us all.
From the moment you stepped onto Iranian soil, in theory, you were under the control of the Ministry. Most often, that meant a young man—or usually a young woman—assigned to you as a “minder”, making sure you didn’t violate the dozens of written and unwritten rules that surrounded your presence.
Why would revolutionary Iran even allow U.S. and other international journalists inside the country in the first place?
For one clear cut reason:to portray as much as possible events on the ground in a manner that would benefit the government. Hundreds of thousands of protestors shouting “Death to America” outside the U.S. Embassy? While it certainly angered most U.S. viewers, the Iranians were reaching for a far more subtle audience—Islamic leaders around the world who would see the birth of something new, aggressive and potent: crowds on the street that eventually could make policy.
When the government of revolutionary Iran in 1979 and 1980 found it could not control the message to its liking, the response was equally clearcut: refuse to extend the visas of international journalists and eventually expel them all from the country.
It happened to me in the late winter of 1980 just as it happened last week to the dozens of international journalists who traveled to Iran to cover the elections in mid June. When their presence was deemed detrimental to the State, they were forced to leave.
I am certain the correspondents, producers and technicians inside Iran for the elections all worked as hard as we did three decades ago to get the story right. And I am sure they did all they could to extend their visas.
When I was inside Iran, there was nothing more important aside from the news of the day then securing even an additional few days permission to work legally in Iran. That often meant long suffering hours at the Ministry of Guidance offices, listening with at least surface politeness to lecture after lecture on the virtues of the revolution, the demonic nature of the United States and Britain (two themes repeated still today of course) and how the world had to hear the “truth” about the brave men and women who toppled the Shah.
In 1980, as the hostage crisis consumed month after month, the Iranian authorities began to allow international journalists back into the country—only when the authorities felt they had the upper hand. This time, instead of four dozen representatives from each network, they insisted on a limit of only five per broadcast news organization and only one each from a newspaper or news magazine.
It’s likely that some sort of similar model will follow in the next month or two—but only if and when the theocracy in charge of Iran decides that such presence will be in their benefit.
In late April of 1980, those of us still working inside Tehran had begun to establish an uneasy, but workable relationship with the authorities. It all went up in smoke on April 24, 1980 when word came of the aborted rescue mission launched by President Carter in the Iranian desert. Almost instantly, enormous crowds of anti-American demonstrators filled the streets.
Ultimately, we were all expelled from the country again.
In 2009, it’s impossible to predict the next steps. Thirty years ago, the cycle of funerals, a 40 day mourning period for the dead killed on the streets and the always fiery Friday prayers made the country seem unsteady and dangerous.
Today, as Iran continues to bar most international journalists from covering this remarkable story, that pattern may well repeat.
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