PD Editorial: Iran must free American journalists

Press Democrat readers met Jason Rezaian eight years ago. A freelance writer and documentary filmmaker who grew up in Marin County, he had just returned from Iran, his eighth visit in five years.

Rezaian, whose father was an Iranian expatriate and owned an antique store in Petaluma, has dual citizenship and a strong interest in his family’s roots. In an interview about his travels, he observed that many young adults were leaving Iran to seek economic opportunities and personal freedom elsewhere. Yet he expressed optimism for Iran’s future.

“Things are relaxing,” he said, “ and it’s freer what people can do.”

Unfortunately, progress in Iran is seldom linear. The election of a more democratic government, any signs of cooperation with the U.S. or easing of barriers for the Western news media inevitably brings about a backlash from hardliners in Iran’s powerful clergy.

The latest step backwards involves Rezaian, who has been the Washington Post’s correspondent in Tehran since 2012, reporting on subjects ranging from an upstart Iranian baseball league to diplomatic negotiations involving Iran’s nuclear program.

Days after returning from nuclear talks in Vienna, and shortly before a planned trip to the Bay Area, Rezaian and his wife, a reporter for a Qatari news organization, were detained last week by Iranian authorities. So were two freelance photographers, both U.S. citizens.

Iran has offered no explanation and even waited several days before even confirming that the journalists were in custody. Neither their families nor the Post have heard from them, the newspaper reported, and their whereabouts are unknown. They’ve had no known access to legal counsel, nor have they been permitted to meet with Swiss consular officials, who represent American interests in Iran. Rezaian suffers from high blood pressure, and, without access to his medication, friends and family members say his health is in danger.

There’s no justification for their arrests, so they’re most likely a product of internal politics.

At a briefing in Washington on Monday, Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, suggested the arrests were timed to thwart progress toward a nuclear agreement that could lead to a thaw in relations between Iran and the United States after 35 years of antagonism.

“Our evaluation is that the hardliners are terrified of a more open press and increased political and social freedoms, because they fear once they allow any such opening their tight control of domestic affairs will quickly unravel, and they will be challenged on many fronts,” Ghaemi said, according to Voice of America.

Despite some signs of openness, Iran’s record on human rights and free speech is dreadful, and Iranian leaders have shown no compunction about using journalists as pawns.

Sixty-five journalists are presently being held in Iranian prisons, including five foreign nationals, according to the international group Journalists Without Borders. An American freelance journalist, Roxana Saberi, was detained in January 2009, convicted of espionage four months later and sentenced to eight years in prison. She was released in May 2009.

Rezaian surely understood the risks of working in Iran, but he also believed he could explain Iran and its citizens to an American audience. “I want people to know Iran is not the bogeyman,” he said in the 2006 interview. Perhaps he still believes that, but we won’t know until Iran releases Rezaian, his wife and the other journalists.

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