Sometimes life imitates art which imitates life. Such is the link between Maziar Bahari and Jason Rezaian.
Life: Bahari is an Iranian-born journalist who was in Tehran reporting for Newsweek during the disputed 2009 Iranian national elections when he was charged with espionage, thrown in prison, tortured, denied counsel and visitation, held in solitary confinement and finally freed after 118 days.
Art: Bahari’s memoir became the spine of the 2014 film “Rosewater,” Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, a critical but not box office success that served nonetheless to spotlight the Iranian regime’s appalling suppression of media and political debate.
Life: Rezaian, a dual Iranian-American citizen, is the Tehran bureau chief for The Washington Post. He was taken into custody on July 22, 2014, and is being held in Evin Prison, the same bleak and frightening facility where Bahari spent four months of his life. Rezaian learned only in April that he has been charged with, among other falsities, espionage. His trial, if that’s what you call it, began on May 26, and was held in secret for supposed “security reasons,” with no indication of when it will resume. Even his mother, who traveled to Tehran for the proceedings, was not allowed in the courtroom.
The connection between these two men is at once coincidental and deeply illuminating, depressing and galvanizing. Their respective imprisonments are bit parts in the larger unfolding drama of domestic tensions within Iran and in the ruling hierarchy’s relationship with the West.
But even if they are merely pawns in a dangerous global chess game, Bahari’s story shows how important it is for those of us who care about press freedoms and human rights to speak out loudly, forcefully and repeatedly. A public outcry isn’t only about trying to shape the prisoner’s fate. It’s about giving the prisoner hope.
In the cinematic rendering of Bahari’s story, it’s an offhand comment by a prison guard that breaks through the isolation and despair. “Mr. Hillary Clinton,” the guard calls Bahari. And suddenly, the man confined to a tiny cell learns that the chief diplomat of the United States is speaking his name out loud. He wasn’t forgotten. He had become a cause.
That is why it’s incumbent upon us to speak out about Jason Rezaian.
We should not be deterred by Iran’s deplorable record on press freedoms — of the 180 countries ranked by Reporters Without Borders in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index, Iran is among the very worst at 173, just below Somalia and just above Sudan, (By comparison, Israel is ranked 101, gaining demerits for its treatment of Palestinian journalists in the West Bank and during the 2014 military campaign in Gaza. The United States is ranked 49, for among other negatives, the arbitrary arrest of journalists during clashes in Ferguson, Missouri last year. Ranked highest is Finland. Eritrea claims the bottom spot.)
Rezaian and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, an Iranian citizen who is also a journalist, were jointly taken into custody; after 72 days in prison, she was released on bail and is being tried separately.
Now 39, Rezaian was born and raised in San Francisco. His father was from Tehran, but the son never even visited the country until he was in his mid-20s, according to a video about his life featuring his brother, Ali.
Rezaian began working for the Post in Tehran about two years ago, impressed by the vibrancy of Iranian culture. “If anything, he showed people the best side of Iran in what he wrote,” his brother said.
This was supposed to be a time of broadening press freedoms, as promised by President Hassan Rouhani when he took office in August 2013. “The authorities appeared to be arresting journalists a little less frequently,” Faraz Sanei wrote last year for Human Rights Watch. “Even Cabinet ministers began debating the issue of government censorship.”
But as the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program intensified, Sanei and other observers catalogued a government crackdown on journalists and social media activitists.
Some speculate that Rezaian and other imprisoned victims of human rights abuses, are pawns in an internal power struggle between Rouhani’s more moderate forces and hard-line officials who are seeking to scuttle a deal with the United States and other world powers.
If that’s true, then Rezaian’s story could make us feel even less trustful of an Iranian regime that has turned its nation into one of the largest prisons for journalists in the world. For critics of a nuclear deal, this could provide one more reason to walk away.
But it is also just as possible, should a deal be reached and Rouhani is victorious, that Iran will step away from its long history of human rights abuse and begin building a stronger civil society.
Whatever the broader geopolitical consequences, there is no escaping the seriousness of this situation right now.
“There is no justice in this system, not an ounce of it, and yet the fate of a good, innocent man hangs in the balance,” Martin Baron, the Post’s executive editor, said on the day Rezaian was ushered into a closed court, before a judge known for handing down harsh sentences. “Iran is making a statement about its values in its disgraceful treatment of our colleague, and it can only horrify the world community.”
It is sadly true that requests by the Post, the U.S. government and international rights organizations for an open trial were ignored. But that should not stop continued advocacy for Jason Rezaian and the many other journalists who are in prison for simply doing their job and telling the stories that need to be told.