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Panorama producer imprisoned

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Sandy Smith | 08:30 UK time, Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Maziar Bahari, the Iranian film-maker who worked with Jane Corbin on the Panorama film Obama and the Ayatollah that ran before last month's fateful elections, was arrested in Tehran on 21 June. His laptop and some video tapes were also taken by men who didn't identify themselves.

Maziar BahariReliable information is hard to come by but to the best of our knowledge he is in Evin prison and a "confession" attributed to him has been released in which he was described as a "collaborator of British and American media" who had compiled "hostile and false" reports.

Maziar, who has dual Canadian nationality, is an independent film-maker who also works for a wide range of broadcasters and publications. He wasn't working for the BBC in the period after the elections when the country was gripped by demonstrations and widespread allegations that the election had been rigged in favour of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad .

Maziar's contributions to Panorama would themselves have caused little complaint in Tehran. He worked on a 2008 film critical of the actions of the British Army in southern Iraq On Whose Orders? and as Jane Corbin points out anyone wanting a cliched and one-sided view of Iran would be wasting their time approaching Maziar.

"When I worked with Maziar in Tehran, I was able to appreciate how an experienced Iranian film-maker and journalist sees situations in his own country which the Western media and governments do not always appreciate or understand. We went to Shiraz to film where 14 people had been killed last year in a bomb attack by an anti-government group.
 
I was able to understand, through Maziar's explanations and translations of the views of people there, that while the West regards Iran as a perpetrator of terror, Iranians often see themselves as the victims of terror.
 
The deputy prosecutor of Tehran showed us documents, arrest warrants from Interpol, detailing how some of those associated with the group behind the crime were believed to be living freely in the UK and US. Maziar felt this was a very important story and I am glad we covered it.
 
Maziar was always very keen to explain to me the Iranian government's view of the political, social and economic situation inside the country.
 
We spent equal time covering the campaigns of President Ahmadinejad and Mir Hosein Mousavi. As a journalist, Maziar was only concerned with covering the issues and views of other people, not to let any personal preference become part of the story we were covering. He was always respectful and appreciative at all times of the achievements of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the contributions made by all sectors of Iranian society."

Maziar is a film-maker in his own right, with at least 10 films to his credit, and a playwright. His movie, And Along Came a Spider, was the first Iranian documentary to be aired on HBO in the US. He is active in the Iranian Documentary Film-makers Association, and has worked closely with young Iranians who aspire to be film-makers. Two years ago the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam organised a retrospective of his work.

He is also one of the few film-makers to work in Iraq since the US invasion in 2003. His films have covered subjects as varied as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and his work on the difficulties faced by journalists in Iraq has been especially well regarded.

The Harvard Film Archives had this to say about his work:

"In a country known for neorealist fiction films that focus on small events in the lives of individuals, the work of Iranian director Maziar Bahari is somewhat anomalous. Employing a traditional documentary style to explore more far-reaching cultural events, Bahari's films provide a glimpse inside contemporary Iranian culture as they reveal the human element behind the headlines and capture cultural truths through the lens of individual experience.
 
Representing a new generation of young Iranian film-makers, Bahari's trenchant looks at social issues in his country have brought both controversy and international acclaim."

Sandy Smith is editor of Panorama.

Panorama's response to Omagh report

Sandy Smith | 10:07 UK time, Thursday, 12 February 2009

Damage caused by the Omagh bombingYesterday the Omagh families met Prime Minister Gordon Brown at No 10 to discuss the outcome of an inquiry into Panorama's revelations that GCHQ were recording mobile phone exchanges between the Omagh bombers on the day of the attack.

The report by the Intelligence Services Commissioner Sir Peter Gibson had been ordered by Mr Brown and was published last month.

Panorama's September 2008 programme, Omagh: What The Police Were Never Told, disclosed that GCHQ had monitored up to five mobile phones used by some members of the bomb gang during the 100 minute bomb run from the Irish Republic to Omagh, but that the detectives trying to identify the bombers were never told this, even though they were desperate for leads.

None of the perpetrators have been convicted of the bombing, which killed 29 people, two unborn babies and injured 250 people on 15 August 1998, despite promises from the-then Prime Minister Tony Blair that no stone would be left unturned in the hunt to bring the culprits to justice.

However, although appearing to confirm many aspects of the programme, Sir Peter avoided holding any branch of the intelligence services to account for the fact that the detectives were never told that intercepts existed and that the telephone numbers of some of the bombers were known.

Sir Peter also criticised Panorama for making "allegations" that the bombing could have been prevented.

In fact the programme made no such allegation. Rather, we asked whether the bombing could have been prevented - a question we now consider even more justified by Sir Peter's failure to challenge our central claim: that GCHQ was listening to the mobiles of some of the bombers while the bomb was being driven to Omagh.

The Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward told Parliament Sir Peter's review was "exhaustive" and "comprehensive".

Today Panorama publishes a detailed response to Sir Peter's criticisms of Panorama and highlights the many questions we say it it fails to answer. Readers can judge for themselves whether they consider Mr Woodward's comments are merited.

Even to this day detectives have never been officially told about the phone monitoring.

The families say they want to know why neither Sir Peter nor the Northern Ireland Secretary have had anything to say about the GCHQ policy in place in 1998 that appears to have prevented even one telephone number being passed to detectives to get them going even though 29 people lay dead.

Sir Peter comments only on the "cautious way" Special Branch shared intelligence with the CID.

He just says it was not part of his remit to investigate the reasons for their "caution" but he "does not doubt" there were "good operational reasons" for it.

Sir Peter says the Branch could have asked GCHQ for "material that might have existed" to disseminate to the CID, but that "the record shows no such request was made".

The Omagh relatives consider this to be his single most extraordinary comment.

They ask if any reasonable person would seriously consider that the entire intelligence gathering apparatus of Northern Ireland would need to be specifically asked to collect intelligence to help identify those responsible for the single worst atrocity of the Northern Ireland conflict?

While Mr Woodward thinks Sir Peter's work was "exhaustive", some senior officers John Ware has spoken to beg to differ: "Gibson has surface skated" said one, adding that he had been "appointed to close the curtain on Omagh".

You can read Panorama's detailed response and make your own mind up.

Sandy Smith is editor of Panorama.

Investigating Scientology

Sandy Smith | 20:15 UK time, Monday, 14 May 2007

We set out to ask if Scientology was changing. It's an organisation with a chequered history, and a very colourful founder. It's been described as corrupt and sinister in courts in the UK. But the Church says that's all in the past, and it's just opened a new HQ in London.

panorama.gifAs part of his investigations, our reporter John Sweeney (more from him here) had been shown an exhibition entitled the 'Industry of Death'. Scientologists believe that all psychiatry should be eradicated, and that it is evil in every form. Like everything to do with Scientology, their views are absolute.

In that exhibition John had seen representations of needles being pushed into children's eyes, he'd seen torture imagery, all of which Scientologists say is legitimate. He'd been talking to Scientologists and ex-Scientologists all week, they'd been dogging his every step, following him, and interrupting interviews that he'd been doing. At one point he was conducting an interview when a spokesman for the Scientologists turned up unannounced in the middle of a car park, to challenge John for "interviewing a pervert".

sweeney.jpgThe whole thing came to a head when the spokesman accused John of going too soft on that interviewee, and John completely lost it in a way that I don't condone. We're not broadcasting the clip to promote the programme because we're proud of it - we're showing it because it's been on You Tube and the BBC is being criticised for it - and we don't want to hide it. We would have included it in the film in any case. I'm very disappointed with John, and he's very disappointed.

But when you watch the programme (which you will be able to do on our website after tonight's transmission), and you see what goes before and what comes after, you see a portrait of an extraordinary organisation which will not accept any criticism of itself whatsoever. It's not a question of us setting out to call Scientology a cult - it's just a question of us asking legitimate questions, and their organisation being unwilling to engage seriously with us. And when you go in as a journalist to try and deal with that, it's explosive. I'm now dealing with a situation in which the Church of Scientology has released a video to all MPs and peers accusing Panorama, of staging a demonstration outside one of their offices in London and making a death threat - or as they call it, a terrorist death threat - against Scientologists. The BBC, accused of terrorism.

The Church did, at first, agree to be involved. Over a day and a half, they organised formal interviews for us - they wanted us to talk to actresses Anne Archer and Kirstie Alley, as well as other celebrities and sports stars. They lined them all up, one after the other, and they talked about what Scientology meant to them. They were convincing and strong - Kirstie Alley in particular was very persuasive. John asked why some people say that it's a sinister cult, and about claims of brainwashing. Which, for the record, is not an allegation we've made - I don't want Scientologists in the UK to think that that's our view.

We completed the interviews, then three or four days before transmission, we received solicitors' letters from California saying that the interviewees no longer wanted to take part. So we were obliged to remove them.

In a sense, they've shot themselves in the foot by refusing to allow us to broadcast those viewpoints, when that was what we wanted to do. The Church rejects all criticism, and disputes that they offered us conditions on access which we couldn't accept.

The BBC's head of current affairs has reviewed our footage and, apart from the moment where John loses his temper, he's happy that none of it breaches the BBC's guidelines. The Scientologists claimed that we breached Ofcom's guidelines over 150 times - though I think that's for the regulator to assess, not the Church.

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