TEHRAN—Playfully ribbing the group of journalists who had filed into the bare concrete room for the event, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reportedly addressed a crowded prison mess hall during Iran’s annual press correspondents’ dinner Thursday night.
According to sources, the supreme leader of Iran stood at a podium in the cafeteria at Tehran’s Evin prison and delivered a lighthearted monologue in which he poked fun at a number of the press corps veterans in attendance, but also took time to recognize the seriousness of the work that had brought them to where they are today.
“Thank you all for coming out tonight,” Khamenei said to the gathering of Iran’s most accomplished reporters and bloggers, who were dressed for the occasion in prison-issued blue uniforms and gray blindfolds. “You guys are always saying you should get out more, but still—I’m sure it was a tough choice between being here or being hung by your wrists and whipped with cables, so I really appreciate it.”
“And look at that, even Shiva Nazar Ahari is here,” continued Khamenei, gesturing toward the award-winning journalist and activist. “We had to interrogate the hell out of her, but she finally confessed that she didn’t have plans tonight.”
The correspondents’ dinner, which has reportedly taken place in Evin prison every year since 1979, brings journalists together with the country’s most prominent artists, intellectuals, and reformers to celebrate the role of the press in Iran with small portions of prison food and prepared remarks from the country’s reigning autocrat.
During his 30-minute appearance, Khamenei reportedly took jabs at several banned news organizations and jokingly commiserated with the audience about how Twitter and YouTube were making journalists’ jobs significantly harder during those few minutes every couple months when the state firewall blocking them temporarily goes down. He also added that he was pleased to see so many familiar faces in the audience, but that he was especially happy to see all the new faces in attendance there this year.
“Issa [Saharkhiz], I know you’re a picky eater, so I made sure you got your favorite meal,” said Khamenei, gesturing toward the empty plate in front of the political journalist, who has withstood three hunger strikes since his arrest in November. “Just don’t overdo it, okay? Last time you did that, we had to send you to the hospital.”
“Now, I know some of you have been critical of the conditions here at Evin, but I promise I’ve only got a couple more jokes left,” Khamenei added.
The supreme leader remarked that he was grateful for such a packed house, pointing out that every seat in the prison dining hall was filled with journalists, activists, and their family members. Sources confirmed the evening’s schedule included not only dinner and Khamenei’s address, but also a group of Evin prison guards performing a highly choreographed routine of lashings and mock executions.
“These days, with so many people saying the newspaper industry is dead, I almost regret having gotten so involved in it myself,” Khamenei said. “Personally, I feel terrible about the decline of print media, but don’t quote me on that—really, it’s in you and your loved ones’ best interest not to quote me on that.”
Khamenei went on to deliver a series of snappy one-liners about Narges Mohammadi, a journalist and women’s rights advocate recently given a 16-year sentence, quipping that the interrogators at the prison had probably learned their tactics by watching the way she conducts her interviews.
Nearing the end of his monologue, the 77-year-old cleric acknowledged all the journalists in exile who were unable to attend the dinner, saying he hoped to see them at the event next year.
“In all seriousness, though,” said Khamenei, concluding the evening’s remarks on a note of heartfelt sincerity, “you guys represent the voice of the people, and that’s why I’m so glad you’re here tonight.”