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Zibakalam: Hope for future of democracy in Iran

June 12, 2018

Deutsche Welle's 2018 Freedom of Speech Award has been presented to Iranian political scientist Sadegh Zibakalam. He faces a jail sentence for speaking out against the political situation in his home country.

Freedom of Speech Award
Image: DW/U. Wagner

It's one of the highlights at the Global Media Forum, DW's international media conference: the presentation of the Freedom of Speech Award. On Tuesday night, guests gathered for the event at the German parliament's former plenary chamber in Bonn.

In previous years, Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, Hurriyet newspaper Editor-in-Chief Sedat Ergin and the White House Correspondents' Association were honored for promoting freedom of expression and human rights in an exceptional way. This year's winner is Sadegh Zibakalam, professor of political science at the University of Tehran.

Zibakalam is one of Iran's most well-known intellectuals and political experts. He is famous for the intense debates he holds with hardliners, repeatedly criticizing the government's official stance on domestic and foreign policy matters.

In January 2018, when tens of thousands of Iranians were protesting against Tehran's economic policies and the entire political establishment, Zibakalam had said in a DW interview that the protests were organized by Iranians and not by foreign powers. That directly contradicted the official government stance, and he was sentenced to 18 months in prison in March. He has appealed the ruling; a decision is pending.

"I have not spent a day in prison in the Islamic Iran for my beliefs," Zibakalam said in his acceptance speech Tuesday night. "But there are many Iranian writers, journalists, lawyers, women and human rights activists, trade unionists, students, artists, dissident and opposition figures, religious thinkers including Sunnis, Bahais, Christians, activists and even Dervishes and Sufi mystics who have spent many years behind the bars."

Zibakalam went on to list the names of several people "who can be categorized as prisoners of conscious today or in the past," whom he deemed more worthy of the award.

Changing the system from within

On Tuesday afternoon outside the event location, a group of around 10 men and women protested against DW's decision to give the award to Zibakalam, saying he was too close to the Iranian regime.

In a video honoring Zibakalam at the start of the award ceremony, it was stated that those criticizing the political scientist for not making extreme enough demands for change didn't take into account that he was trying to change the system from within.

In his speech praising Zibakalam for receiving the honor, Reinhard Baumgarten, a foreign correspondent for German public radio and television, said that the Iranian political scientist played an extremely important role in his country.

"He advocates for reforming Iran's current ruling system instead of abolishing it outright," Baumgarten said. "He believes in the democratic capacity of his country."

Baumgarten also recounted an episode where Zibakalam refused to step on the US and the Israeli flags that were laid out on the ground in a building in the eastern Iranian city of Mashhad two years ago.

Growing independent press in Iran

In his acceptance speech, Zibakalam talked about the tumultuous history of Iran — about phases of free elections and an independent press alternating with repressive regimes. He listed groups of people that are oppressed, thrown in jail or even killed in present day Iran because of their religion, political background or ideological conviction, such as Sunnis and environmental activists.

But he also stressed that there were positive developments happening in the country, a "side which is brighter and suggests hope for the future of democracy in Iran." One of Zibakalam's examples for this: the "half-a-dozen newspapers in Iran today that can be described as independent."

He ended his speech on a somber note, dedicating his award to political prisoner Abbas Amir Entezam, "who, by spending 27 years in Evin prison, symbolizes the struggle for democracy and freedom in modern Iran."

Carla Bleiker
Carla Bleiker Editor, channel manager and reporter focusing on US politics and science@cbleiker