Ottawa Citizen: Threatening e-mails and phone calls resulted in the cancellation Tuesday evening of a film that exposes Iran’s efforts to build nuclear weapons and promote terrorism.
The Ottawa Citizen
Library and Archives staff report threats after embassy’s formal complaint
By Robert Sibley, Kristy Nease And Sneh Duggal, Ottawa Citizen
Threatening e-mails and phone calls resulted in the cancellation Tuesday evening of a film that exposes Iran’s efforts to build nuclear weapons and promote terrorism.
The threats followed a formal complaint last weekend from the Iranian Embassy, seeking to stop the showing of the film Iranium at Library and Archives Canada.
Late Tuesday afternoon, police cars and fire trucks surrounded the Wellington-Street building after staff reported two suspicious letters had been dropped off by a man at about 4 p.m. The man hurried away before anyone could question him and the letters had no return address. An hour later, there was a series of phone calls threatening violent protests. By 6 p.m., long after most of the staff had left, there were no protesters and the letters were found to be harmless.
Nonetheless, the situation forced Fred Litwin, president of the Free Thinking Film Society, to accept the cancellation of the film’s showing. Litwin said he was told of the intended cancellation on Monday, and, when he later asked why, was told it was because of a complaint from the Iranian Embassy.
That initial decision to cancel the film’s showing was apparently reversed Monday after Litwin spoke to officials in Heritage Minister James Moore’s office. The ministry has an arms-length relationship with the library and archives, but ministerial spokesman Jean-Luc Benoit said staff in the minister’s office contacted Library and Archives and asked that the cancellations be reconsidered.
The agency was reminded that the movie’s subject reflected the Canadian government’s concerns with Iran’s poor record on human rights and its nuclear ambitions.
Litwin said he suspected that beyond the Iranian Embassy’s formal complaint, it was also behind the intimidation efforts. “It’s simply astounding that in the capital of Canada we can’t show a film that offends the Iranians,” he said. “How can Tehran dictate what movie is going to be shown in the capital of Canada?”
What also bothers Litwin is that bureaucrats at Library and Archives Canada were so easily cowed. “They get a complaint or the threat of a protest and the easiest thing for them to do is cancel it.
“It’s as if the mullahs can enforce their cultural values on Canadians. It’s extraordinary that they (bureaucrats) didn’t give a thought to upholding the right to freedom of speech.”
Iranium, produced by filmmaker Raphael Shore, is a 60-minute documentary that examines the policies of the Iranian regime, including its pursuit of nuclear weapons and its support of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and warns of the potential threat Iran represents to the world. The film contains interviews with various politicians and experts on Iran, as well as with Iranian dissidents.
Litwin pointed out that his film festival screened three films with an anti-Iranian bent in November at the Archives: For Neda, The Stoning of Soraya M., and Atomic Jihad. None attracted protests.
On Sunday afternoon, however, he appeared on a CHIN Radio Ottawa program, Hamseda Radio, hosted and produced by Shabnam Assadollahi, to talk about Iranium. Litwin speculated that her show is monitored by the Iranian regime, and perhaps prompted the complaint against Iranium.
On Tuesday evening, Benoit expressed disappointment with Library and Archives Canada’s decision to give way to threats. “I’m disappointed that the Archives chose not to show the film tonight due to threats of violence,” he said in an e-mail to the Citizen. “The Iranian Embassy will not dictate to the Government of Canada which films will or will not be shown in Canada.”
Yet, that seems to be exactly what happened. Pauline Portelance, spokeswoman for Library and Archives Canada, while insisting that the agency did not receive any direction from the Heritage Minister’s office, acknowledged the various threats prompted the decision to cancel the film’s showing. She also acknowledged that the Iranian Embassy had made a formal complaint requesting the cancellation. However, she denied that the cancellation had anything to do with the formal complaint, even though it was only after the complaint that the threatening e-mails and letters arrived.
This is not the first time the Iranian regime has intervened in Canadian affairs. Last month, it warned its citizens to take precautions when travelling in Canada after the shooting of 16-year-old Yazdan Ghiasvand Ghiasi in Ottawa. Ghiasi was born in Iran. As well, Iran’s foreign ministry has also sent a note to the Canadian counterpart urging that the perpetrators be punished.
Canada has condemned Iran in cases such as the death in custody of Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, the imprisonment of Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan, and the brutal death sentence against Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, whose case has attracted the attention of Laureen Harper.
However, there is more to the situation than diplomatic tit-for-tat, according to intelligence specialists. David Harris, director of Insignis Strategic Research, a private firm specializing in intelligence on terrorism, said the decision to cancel the film leaves the impression agencies of the Canadian government are susceptible to the influence — and threats — of foreign governments. Equally problematic, he said, is that bureaucrats in Library and Archives Canada seemingly gave no thought to maintaining Charter guarantees of freedom of assembly and speech.
“Does a call from the Iranians mean the collapse of free speech in Ottawa? What kind of surreal atmosphere exists in the bureaucracy? The whole situation leaves the impression of a knee-jerk bowing to the mullahs of Iran.”
Clare Lopez, a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy in Washington, who was supposed to introduce the film, echoed that sentiment. “What’s especially troubling about this incident is that what it represents is pre-emptive stifling of free speech. It’s not that something objectionable to someone was shown or spoken, it wasn’t even aired. The film was not even screened yet, and yet, free speech was shut down ahead of time, said the former CIA officer.
Litwin, meanwhile, said he intended to make sure free speech did not die. He still intends to show the film. “This film has to be shown in Ottawa. I’ll do whatever possible, whether it’s at the Archives or somewhere else, this film will be shown.”