The Iranian Women in American Journalism (IWAJ): Golnaz Esfandiari

The Iranian Women in American Journalism (IWAJ): Golnaz Esfandiari

Golnaz Esfandiari is a Senior Correspondent at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty‘s (RFE/RL) Central Newsroom. She is the editor of the Persian Letters blog. Golnaz has served previously as Chief Editor of RFE’s Persian-language service: Radio FardaShe also presides over the newsroom’s Asia Desk. Born in Tehran, Golnaz has traveled to Afghanistan several times to cover the country’s first parliamentary elections.

Her interview with the wife of Iran’s most prominent investigative journalist, Akbar Ganji, was published in six languages (including English, German, Russian and Arabic) at the occasion of the 2006 World Press Freedom Day. Golnaz is known for her incisive analyses of Iranian politics, uncovering aspects of it that are sometimes hard to find in the mainstream media. With nearly 7000 followers on Twitter, Golnaz has made her blog, Persian Letters, a destination site for many avid readers of Iranian affairs. Persian Letters been a finalist twice for the Online Journalism Award.


Were you born in Iran? If so, how long did you live there?

I was born and raised in Tehran. I left Iran in the early 1990’s to study in Prague. I used to go back every year to visit my family before I joined Radio Free Europe. Since then, I haven’t gone back because of the risk of being jailed by Iranian authorities who have a record of pressuring members of the media including RFE/RL’s journalists.

How long have you been with the RFE/RL? What roles have you held there?

I’ve been with RFE/RL for more than 10 years. I first worked briefly in the Information Unit before joining the Persian Service as a broadcaster.  Later, I moved to RFE/RL’s Newsroom as a reporter before leading the Asia Desk.  I became the chief editor of Radio Farda in 2007.  I’m currently a senior correspondent with the Newsroom and the editor of Persian Letters blog.

Tell us about your education, please.

I have a Masters in Clinical Psychology from Charles University.

How did you end up in journalism? Are there any particular areas that you cover?

I have always been a news junkie. While studying in Prague, I learned that Radio Free Europe was launching a Persian Service. I applied immediately and was lucky enough to get a job. I used to cover mainly Iran and Afghanistan as well as human rights and women’s issues in general. While based in Prague, I cooperated on several documentaries for the Czech TV, including one on the situation in Haiti a year after the earthquake.  Nowadays I mostly cover Iranian politics, the nuclear crisis, social media trends, and ties between Tehran and Washington.

How did Persian Letters come about and what does it cover?

The idea came from my editors in the aftermath of the 2009 anti-government protests and the emergence of the Green Movement.  We were receiving lots of information from citizen journalists and our audience, a blog was seen as a good and quick way to cover some of that information as well as opposition and hardline blogs.  In Persian Letters, I have done my best to go beyond the nuclear issue and the usual headlines, and cover stories that are often getting zero or little attention in Western media, including Iran’s vibrant blogosphere, the discussions and campaigns on social media, the plight of political prisoners, the divide and differences between conservatives, political humor, and many other topics.  It has been quite successful, I’ve managed to break stories on Persian Letters, and the blog posts are often picked up and cited by major news organizations. Persian Letters has been twice a finalist for the Online Journalism Award.

Apart from Persian, you speak a number of European languages (English, French, Czech, Italian). What were the factors that made you multilingual?  

I became multilingual for cultural, intellectual, practical and also sentimental reasons. I grew up in a francophone family, and I attended Lycee Razi in Tehran.  I learned the other languages I speak later. “The more languages you speak, the more of a person you are,” says a Czech proverb.  I think learning different languages widens your horizon.

Who would you name among some of your main sources of inspiration in your career?

Many of my colleagues at RFE/RL work in dangerous situations, they often come under attack from the repressive regimes that rule in many of our target countries. Yet they manage to remain dedicated to their profession and ready to make personal sacrifices in order to carry out their reporting. I find it very inspiring.

In the course of your career as a woman working in an American news organization, what have been some of the key challenges you have encountered?

Reporting on developments in Iran without having a presence on the ground is a challenge. I always have to be very creative and look for alternative sources of information. Contacting my sources and ordinary people is also challenging because of security issues.  As a journalist, I rarely think of myself as a woman; nevertheless, we’re still living in a man’s world.  Women often have to work harder to prove themselves.   RFE/RL promotes equal opportunity, and a number of our service directors and senior managers are women. Yet as the chief editor of Radio Farda, I faced some levels of resistance from some of my Iranian colleagues — men as well as women — who were not very comfortable being led by a woman — and especially one who was younger than them. There are still stereotypes, prejudice, and wrong notions out there like female journalists should only cover human interest stories and that political reporting and foreign policy issues are the domain of men.

How do you think being an Iranian woman or a woman of Iranian descent has played itself out in your career?

Being an Iranian woman has sometimes helped me reach sources — for example in Afghanistan — that my male colleagues were not able to access. As an Iranian journalist and a woman, I believe I have a better understanding of Iran and a different perspective from Western journalists who cover Iran but have never lived there, don’t speak the language, or don’t fully grasp the nuances.  It makes a big difference, I think.

Are you a mother?

I’m not a mother. I sponsor a child in India though.

How do you think the Arab Spring will impact women’s social status in the Arab/Islamic world? Are you an optimist?

I am cautiously optimistic despite the comparisons some make with the 1979 revolution in Iran. There might be some setbacks in the short term, but in the long term, I think, changes will be positive for women in the Arab world. I’ve had the honor and pleasure to meet some of the brave women who have been at the forefront of the protests in countries, such as Tunisia and Egypt, and I can tell you that they are very determined in their desire for change and their demands for more rights.

Ten years from now, what kind of an Iran do you envision in your mind?

Events in Iran are unpredictable, but I hope Iran will be a place where its citizens can live freely, where no one will be jailed, tortured, or executed because of his or her ideas, beliefs, writings, and political activities, and that, finally, there will be an Iran where young people will be able to have hope for the future.

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