A Timely New Book and the Precarious Situation of Journalists in Iran

December 8, 2014

former New York Times Iran correspondent Nazila  Fathi
former New York Times Iran correspondent Nazila

Journalists working in Iran face daunting challenges. They are constantly under threat of being suddenly arrested and detained for long periods of time, in inhumane conditions and without knowing the nature of the charges against them.

Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian has just earned the dubious distinction of being the longest-held foreign journalist in Iran. Detained in Evin Prison since his arrest in July, it was just announced that Jason Rezaian’s detention was extended another two months in November. This despite the fact that Iran’s top “human rights” official, Mohammad Javad Larijani, said in early November that he anticipated that Mr. Rezaian would be released within one month.

Jason Rezaian apparently was charged during a court session on December 6, but his family has not been informed what the charges are; according to Human Rights Watch, prosecutors have not allowed the lawyer hired by Rezaian’s family to defend him, to speak with him, or to review his case file. He is in poor health and it is unclear that he has been given adequate medical care.

The ongoing ordeal of Jason Rezaian is nothing new. And this is apparently the season for reminders about Iran’s long and disgraceful track record of persecuting journalists.

Jon Stewart’s new film Rosewater about the arrest and brutal treatment suffered by Newsweek correspondent and Canadian-Iranian Maziar Bahari was released last month.

Now former New York Times Iran correspondent Nazila Fathi’s new book The Lonely War: One Woman’s Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran has just been published. Fortunately, Nazila Fathi was never arrested, although she was roughed up in the streets of Tehran by government thugs during student protests in 2003. Ms Fathi endured both blatant and subtle threats during the entire course of her career, despite the fact that, like Jason Rezaian and Maziar Bahari, she had made a point of being fully credentialed by the relevant Iranian authorities. Despite the threats, Ms Fathi soldiered on, her professional integrity and courage sustaining her, until she was forced to decide that for her own safety and that of her family—following her friend Maziar Bahari’s arrest and scary incidents of being followed and monitored—she had to flee the country and start a new life in the United States.

The Lonely War blends together Ms Fathi’s own story of growing up during the early years of the Revolution and the development of her interest in a career in journalism, with perceptive discussions about social and economic trends—many of them positive–in Iran over the 35 years since the Revolution. Some of the most fascinating descriptions are of interviews she conducted with a broad cross section of Iranians, including government officials, a strong-willed female member of Parliament, members of the Basij paramilitary, and a student activist who had been arrested multiple times. Though not given to introspection, as the book progresses Ms Fathi emerges as an astute observer and analyst of the conditions in her country and of the varying (and sometimes conflicting) motivations of the different people with whom she interacts. Readers will also be struck with the grace and aplomb with which she perseveres in her chosen vocation, despite the numerous obstacles, and the frightening examples of those who were punished for revealing too much of the truth.

I highly recommend this book and I also urge people to follow up by taking action to help journalists in Iran who have been persecuted for simply doing their job well.Saba Azarpeik, a journalist for the reformist publications Etemaad and Tejarat-e Farda, has been held in solitary confinement in incommunicado detention since her arrest on May 28, 2014. Although her family has not been told why she was arrested, apparently faces the vague but too-frequently used charges of “spreading propaganda against the state” and “spreading lies” in relation to a previous arrest in 2013. A media outlet tied to the government has claimed that she was arrested because of her alleged ties with foreign media and journalists. Please take action and call for her to be immediately and unconditionally released.

Safeguarding the flow of information within and outside Iran is crucial for the promotion of human rights; Jason Rezaian, Nazila Fathi and Saba Azarpeik have all risked their lives and safety to carry out the vital service of informing the public about events and conditions in Iran but Iranian journalists need to know they have our support.