Farzam Dadashzadeh, an Iranian refugee now living in Vancouver, says he was outed in a 2007 CBC documentary called Out in Iran: Inside Iran’s Secret Gay World. Screenshot by J-Source.

Newsrooms need to talk about informed consent when reporting on LGBTQ+ communities

This story was funded by the J-Source Patreon campaign. By Steph Wechsler In August, the CBC was named as a defendant in a lawsuit claiming that Farzam Dadashzadeh, an Iranian refugee now living in Vancouver, was outed in a 2007 documentary called Out in Iran: Inside Iran’s Secret Gay World. The film includes hidden camera footage…

This story was funded by the J-Source Patreon campaign.

By Steph Wechsler

In August, the CBC was named as a defendant in a lawsuit claiming that Farzam Dadashzadeh, an Iranian refugee now living in Vancouver, was outed in a 2007 documentary called Out in Iran: Inside Iran’s Secret Gay World. The film includes hidden camera footage from inside a café frequented by gay and trans Iranians, apparently including then-19-year-old Dadashzadeh, who says his face was captured clearly.

The film was initially aired on CBC, and made its way across the world via YouTube and social media.

Dadashzadeh, who says he was not out to anyone other than a relative living outside of Iran, claims to have been ostracized from his family, harassed, arrested, sexually assaulted in prison and beaten in the same restaurant he was filmed in as a result, according to the claim filed in August. CBC has not yet responded to the lawsuit.

Human rights storytelling is both an essential and, often, charged field of journalism. Reporters sometimes parachute into political frameworks far removed from their own. They have to balance the public interest in knowing about rights violations with the risks posed to sources in volatile regions.

Dadashzadeh’s claims, however, have raised questions about informed consent, and how media tend to report on communities that contain members of both racialized and LGBTQ+ communities.

Evan Solomon, the host and producer who was named in the lawsuit, highlighted the importance of affirmative consent during the documentary, knowing the perilous implications of identifying oneself as LGBTQ+ in Iran, a country that considers it a crime punishable by death.

The film ends with Solomon addressing that all of their sources “agreed to show their faces on camera, fully aware of the potential consequences. Just so you know, that’s a factor we took very seriously in making this documentary.”

The claim states, “Farzam did not allow, grant any consent, authorization or give permission, directly or indirectly, written or oral” to either record him or have that footage be used.

Head of CBC public affairs Chuck Thompson told J-Source that CBC has yet to respond to the suit formally, adding that “we find this case to be without merit,” and that the corporation’s  counsel has suggested legal action is “severely over-time.”

Solomon, who is currently a host on 580 CFRA in Ottawa, has been named as a defendant in the suit, as well as a producer, Farid Haerinejad, who was born in Iran and has made several documentaries about LGBT and women’s issues there.

Matthew Garrow, Bell Media’s director of news, local stations, sports, discovery networks and community investment, returned an email interview request addressed to Solomon stating, “We do not comment on matters currently before the courts.” Haerinejad has not responded to a request for comment via LinkedIn.

“When dealing with vulnerable groups of people, it does call for greater sensitivity and reflection on whether or not consent is truly informed.”

Meanwhile, newsrooms should be talking about how to handle free and informed consent, according to a human rights trainer contacted by J-Source.

“On one hand, if someone is willing to go on the record and talk about it, having an informed dialogue can create conversation and hold people accountable, but there is also huge ramifications that should be taken into account,” said Hannah Clifford, program manager at Journalists for Human Rights.  Any serious risk posed should be clarified, calculated and signed off on, she said, noting that the principal of free and informed consent is one central to preserving the dignity and safety of interview subjects.

LGBTQ+ issues are human rights issues, said Clifford, and ensuring that you, as a reporter, understand the context in which you’re reporting and that your source properly understands the risks, is a difficult but essential part of the job..

“In general, it’s an important discussion that newsrooms need to have, especially when they’re sending reporters into the field on things like this. When dealing with vulnerable groups of people, it does call for greater sensitivity and reflection on whether or not consent is truly informed,” she said.

“We have to keep the balance as well.”

One of the film’s other subjects is a proponent of protecting people’s identities in this context. Arsham Parsi, the executive director of the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees, told J-Source that while sources may agree to participate in coverage, they may not fully understand the scope of risk involved.

“When an article or a video is online, its not yours anymore. In this global village—you can’t control sharing on YouTube, on Facebook,” said Parsi.

IRQR, a charitable organization that offers LGBTQ+ Iranians support in seeking refugee status in Canada, the U.S. and some European countries, followed Dadashzadeh’s case as he made his way from Iran, through Turkey and ultimately to Vancouver. The group frequently coaches media organizations about covering LGBTQ+ stories in cases where identifying as such can mean death or exile for sources.

Omitting identifying details like full names or exact ages are small changes that can protect interview subjects from government or familial repercussions, said Parsi. Even using an alternate first name–one common to the region–can mitigate the possibility of outing a source, without diminishing the weight of the overall story, he added..

Journalists may balk at these adjustments. Finding a source willing to speak on the record about a human rights violation, or any big story, is a major boon.

Parsi said he understands where journalists are coming from, saying, “People want to have a personal connection with the stories, and if they have more details they could be impacting more, but we have to keep the balance as well.”

This lawsuit will hinge on whether or not consent to use Dadashzadeh’s image can be proven, but there are questions about how it could be possible to get everyone’s permission to record their image in a busy environment, filmed clandestinely.

The CBC’s Journalistic Standards of Practice outlines the circumstances in which the use of hidden camera footage is permissible to record and air.

There are provisions for recording in public places “to record behavior that is a matter of public interest and that the presence of the camera might alter.”

“If you want to help, help us tell our stories”

Kamal Al-Solaylee, a professor at Ryerson’s school of journalism who authored a memoir on his own experiences of growing up gay in the Third World, said he feels the filmmakers could easily have blurred people’s faces without sacrificing the narrative impact. Better yet, perhaps this story would have been better told in print, he suggested.

The footage in the coffee shop at the centre of this suit has “an element of sensationalism,” said Al-Solaylee. “And the comparable point is Hollywood movies from the 50s and 60s: ‘Inside the secret world of homosexuals.’”

“It’s not that different from nature programs–talking about the mating habits of howler monkeys. It’s got that awful feeling of ‘We’re going to take you inside the secret world of…’” said Al-Solaylee.

The documentary was filmed in 2007, which may account for the dated feel of that particular piece. But today, you still come across pieces that many consider exploitative. Readers were aghast when the Daily Beast published a story that involved a straight married writer outing Olympic athletes using Grindr, whether or not they chose to be out, and whether or not their identity posed them risk in their home countries. It was eventually removed from the Daily Beast’s website.

Only time will tell if the plaintiff’s claims will hold. But looking back at the documentary offers salient reminders of journalism’s responsibility to the communities they cover.

“Especially for sexual minorities, up until 10 years ago, that was the only way you could tell those stories,” said Al-Solaylee. “The Westernized reporter with the camera comes in and tells the story of some helpless people. I think that narrative has changed completely now. I think there are more and more stories coming out from people in Muslim countries, particularly who are telling their stories as gay people or transsexual people.

“They don’t need the mediator of the Western commentator or the Western explorer.”

Even for the most well-intentioned reporter, consultation has its limits. But reporters sincerely committed to improving coverage of LGBTQ+ stories should ask how.

“Stop fetishizing us; Stop thinking of us as some kind of criminal underworld. If you want to help, help us tell our stories,” said Al-Solaylee.

“Help people in Iran and Iraq and Yemen and Egypt; Help empower them with cameras and video and help them tell stories. Help them tell their own stories; Things like the ‘coming out’ narrative­– the ‘gay liberation’ narrative– is a Western prism. Help them find a way of telling the LGBT story in a way that is indigenous to them and not just put this model of the nature program onto them.”

[[{“fid”:”6650″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“height”:779,”width”:519,”style”:”width: 100px; height: 150px; margin-left: 5px; margin-right: 5px; float: left;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]Steph Wechsler is the managing editor of print at the Ryerson Review of Journalism. She is also a freelance journalist, researcher, and masters of journalism candidate.

Steph Wechsler is J-Source's managing editor.