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Jailed journalists in Iran: Overlooking the majority

Attention on Western reporters obscures plight of local counterparts

Mary Rezaian, mother of detained Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, speaks with media as she leaves a Revolutionary Court building in Tehran on 10 August 2015
Mary Rezaian, mother of detained Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, speaks with media as she leaves a Revolutionary Court building in Tehran on 10 August 2015

AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

This statement was originally published on on 13 August 2015.

“We were all caught in that uncomfortable zone between trying to save our lives and betraying ourselves.” – Maziar Bahari, Then They Came for Me: A Family's Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival

In 2009, Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari was arrested without charge in Tehran and jailed in Iran's notorious Evin Prison. He endured psychological and physical torture, solitary confinement and daily interrogations. Finally, he was forced to make a televised – and excruciatingly humiliating – false confession.

118 days later, and just two days before the birth of his daughter, he was finally released.

But Bahari was lucky. As a Canadian citizen and a Newsweek reporter, he caught the world's attention. Prominent figures, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, called on the Iranian government to release him.

His case was not the first in which a journalist in Iran was imprisoned on espionage charges, and unfortunately, it was also not the last. Dozens of Iranian journalists, bloggers, and human rights, social and political activists unknown to the outside world still languish in Iranian prisons.

But now Bahari is using his own freedom to shine a light on the plight of journalists imprisoned in Iran who do not have the world behind them.

In June of this year, Bahari launched the campaign “Journalism is not a Crime,” which aims to document ongoing human rights abuses against journalists and raise awareness of the deteriorating press freedom situation in Iran.

The site hosts a collection of projects that, among other things, tell the history of journalism in Iran, investigate PTSD among Iranian journalists, address Iranian breaches of freedom of expression and examine the forced confessions of prisoners.

The campaign also provides legal and psychological assistance to Iranian journalists before, during and after their arrest, produces original multimedia programs and organizes events with various organizations around the world.

A commonality of origin

Today, the iniquitous imprisonment of another Western journalist in Iran is making headlines. Washington Post Tehran bureau chief Jason Rezaian, an Iranian-American, is currently on trial for espionage and could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Just like Bahari, Rezaian is being held in Evin Prison, where he has been imprisoned since July 2014. However, Rezaian is expected to receive a final verdict in his case within a week, after a fourth, and possibly final hearing was held in Tehran on Monday.

The International Press Institute (IPI) is monitoring his trial, which resumed behind closed doors in June. After three hearings so far, Rezaian's lawyer said on July 20 that court officials told her the next hearing would “almost certainly” be the last.

While Rezaian holds both U.S. and Iranian citizenship, the Iranian government only recognizes his Iranian nationality. Rezaian is one of at least three American citizens currently imprisoned in Iran.

However, the exact number of Iranian political prisoners is unknown.

Rezaian's case is also remarkably similar to that of another Iranian-American journalist, Roxana Saberi, who was arrested on January 31, 2009, and held for 100 days in Evin Prison.

Saberi, who had been writing a book on Iran at the time of her arrest, was sentenced to eight years in prison for espionage. However, an Iranian court overturned her sentence and she was finally released in May 2009.

“In my case, I think the international pressure helped push the authorities of Iran to set me free,” Saberi told IPI in a recent phone interview. “I don't know if it will push them to free Jason as well, but I think that it's better than staying silent.”

The most significant commonality among Bahari, Saberi and Rezaian is that they all hold dual citizenship in a Western country and all three were working for Western news outlets at the time of their arrests. They were aided by international campaigns pushing for their release and supported by human rights groups and powerful political figures.

A lot of the prisoners who don't have anybody speaking out for them stay there [in jail] for years and years.
Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi

Hillary Clinton called for the release of both Bahari and Saberi. U.S. President Barack Obama has urged Iran to release Rezaian.

The high-profile nature of these cases created public awareness. And if there is public awareness, there is an opportunity to take action.

However, it appears the West only cares about the West. The Western public only hears about cases involving Iranian journalists who are also Westerners, while dozens of locals are simply forgotten or overlooked.

“A lot of the prisoners who don't have anybody speaking out for them stay there for years and years,” said Saberi.

A 'Wall of Shame' exists on the Journalism is not a Crime website, which aims to compile a comprehensive list of all the journalists who have been jailed in Iran, not just the foreign ones, and provide biographies of them. The site also tracks journalists awaiting trial, those with a suspended sentence or those who have been released or killed.

And that is exactly what these imprisoned Iranian journalists need: international attention, support from powerful world actors and campaigns for their release.

“For those Iranians who don't have the same coverage outside the country, I think it's really important to raise awareness among the public about the situation inside Iran,” Saberi told IPI.

IPI is undertaking its own efforts to promote press freedom in Iran, including its ongoing push for Jason Rezaian's release. IPI also named award-winning Iranian journalist Mashallah Shamsolvaezin its 2014 World Press Freedom Hero.

Shamsolvaezin was jailed numerous times for his criticisms of Iranian government policies. From 2000 to 2001, he was held for 17 months in Evin Prison for an article he wrote criticizing capital punishment.

A call to arms

Maziar Bahari gained support for his release on an international scale. Roxana Saberi also had an army of supporters campaigning for her freedom. And now, Jason Rezaian is receiving a global push for his long-deserved release as well.

But by only focusing on cases involving Western journalists, we are only paying attention to a part, not the whole. The majority of imprisoned journalists in Iran are local journalists – and they are being overlooked.

The world must campaign for the freedom of all journalists, bloggers and social media activists imprisoned in Iran. The United Nations, foreign governments and influential political figures need to come together and pressure Iran toward lasting change.

“It's just a combination of efforts that helps keep the stories of those journalists in jail alive,” said Saberi.

And that is exactly why Bahari's Journalism is not a Crime campaign is so significant. We don't just see a name on a list; we see a story behind it. Moreover, the site's primary language is Persian, so it is not linguistically exclusive to English, unlike most campaigns.

Social media is also a powerful tool to make communities aware of an issue and encourage those communities to then come together with an idea and instigate change. Through social media, the public can make its own noise and pressure governments.

“As a journalist, we want to see other journalists to be freed. We don't want them to be punished for peacefully using the right to freedom of speech or freedom of the press and that should be the case for journalists all over the world, whether it's Iran, or Europe or America or wherever,” said Saberi.

The imprisonment of these journalists, these people, deserves the world's condemnation – and nothing less.

Natalie Rowthorn is pursuing a journalism degree at Indiana University with a focus in international relations.

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