Friday, March 27, 2009

staying engaged

It is now eight weeks since Roxana Saberi was taken by Iranian authorities and placed in solitary confinement in the notorious Evin prison. Initially held on trumped up charges relating to a purchase of wine she is said to have made (alcohol is illegal in countries that operate under Muslim law), she is now accused by authorities of working as a journalist without appropriate accreditation, a crime in Iran.

Besides the just plain crazy nature of a law like this to those of us from the west, locking an honest, demure, kind, and disciplined person like Roxana away without even the pretense of due process under Iranian law is a violation of international standards and practice.

She was due a charge on the matter for which she was arrested. She was due contact with counsel or outside parties. She was due fair treatment and not uncivil conduct. And she was due to be released weeks ago, according to Iranian justice officials.

In recent years, several American women with Iranian ancestry have been treated similarly by Iran's government. Some have been released and returned to the United States, like Haleh Esfandiari. Others, like Cal State Northridge graduate student Esha Momemi have been released from Evin, but are not being allowed to leave the country until their family pays the equivalent of blood money for her freedom.

In recent days, following a stressful phone call Roxana was able to make to her parents, threatening a hunger strike if she is not released, several American legislators have been able to communicate with Iranian officers. The words they are hearing are soothing, but they are words that were heard a month ago, from the Iranian justice ministry.

Perhaps the knowledge that Americans are aware of this situation, and the dialogue that has begun thanks to several current and former Members of Congress, may cause the Iranian authorities to turn from their wrongheaded and despicable treatment of Roxana, and allow her release.

Let's give a moment to hope for justice and reason from a place that does not seem to share a common understanding of these values.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

template for letter to Iran in support of Roxana Saberi

feel free to use this language to contact
Head of the Judiciary Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi
Howzeh Riyasat-e Qoveh Qazaiyeh (Office of the Head of the Judiciary)
Pasteur St., Vali Asr Ave., south of Serah-e Jomhouri, Tehran 1316814737, Islamic Republic of Iran
Email: (In the subject line write: FAO Ayatollah Shahroudi)

Your Excellency:

American journalist Roxana Saberi is being detained in Iran on the grounds that she was ‘illegally gathering news.’ We ask that you investigate these charges, provide Roxana with the rights to which she is entitled under Iranian law, and allow her the opportunity to post bail and be freed from prison pending the hearing of her case.

Several years ago Ms. Saberi participated in an international journalism exchange that was administered by media foundation for which I am an administrator. Ms. Saberi at that time was a very young American journalist interested in learning how she could become an international correspondent.

Within a year of that fellowship Ms. Saberi was able to find employment in Tehran as an international correspondent for an organization that provided news to a number of media organizations around the world.

Since that time Ms. Saberi has reported and traveled within Iran, and as far as I know had not previously been restricted or encumbered in her reporting and newsgathering.

So it was with both surprise and then shock to learn that Ms. Saberi had been detained, not allowed access to counsel, not provided the opportunity for a hearing, and not provided with communication to family.

This situation with Ms. Saberi has become what we in America call a teachable moment. So far, the story has not been a good one, and Iran has not come across well in the reporting. Frankly, Iran comes across as an omnipotent nation willing to quash a woman for no reason other than that it can. That is the lesson that is being learned at this time.

But as we know this story is not complete, and there remains the opportunity for Ms. Saberi to be provided with her legal rights, for her to be released from custody, and for her to be freed from these charges, charges we and many others who closely follow western journalism take to be false.

We urge you to expedite this case, and to help provide Ms. Saberi with the opportunity to live her life, and celebrate Nowruz with her family here in the United States.

Sincerely,Jon Ebinger

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

a reason to care

This has not been a good day.

Reza Saberi, Roxana Saberi's father, had some disconcerting news. Roxana will not only continue to be held in Tehran's Evin prison for some time. Iranian authorities have decided to proceed with a trial, charging her with violating the law by working as a journalist without approved documentation.

None of this is positive. And this comes after preliminary guidance that none of this would happen, that Roxana could be released, and that payment in some form could free her from the solitary situation she faces each day in Evin.

Earlier today I learned that Reza is planning to write a letter to Iranian authorities that will be published as soon as tomorrow morning in a major Tehran daily. He hopes to be able to read the letter to local media in Fargo, North Dakota, where they live, in order to garner attention and coverage for the story.

If you are a working journalist in Fargo, or a cable news producer or reporter here in the States, see about obtaining Reza's letter for use in a story about the travesty of putting this woman up on trial.

This is a terrible turn, and a bit of a surprise given what Reza had been hearing from the attorney. He does not know how this will play out, and in the short term recognizes that Roxana will not be released over the next two weeks as all of Iran will literally shut down for the celebration of the Iranian New Year.

Further, and here's where this story can get even more complicated, Roxana produced freelance reports for a number of international media outlets. NPR was one of the primary beneficiaries of her reporting. As such, they have a responsibility to work on her behalf, to seek to squash the false charges levelled against her, and to obtain her release from prison, and from Iran. To date, NPR has done nothing but act as a signatory to a letter requesting a fair hearing for Roxana. More is expected, and more is needed from Roxana at this time. Not only for her, but for every freelance journalist filing for NPR. Not one senior NPR manager has been put on a plane to Tehran, or done anything directly on behalf of Roxana, and that is a shame. They often used her reporting, and any person who freelances overseas for NPR might begin to wonder whether NPR has their back when things get hairy. We all know what the television networks did in the past when their people were taken into custody. NPR does not seem to have stepped up on this, and appears to be waiting out the work of the official authorities, none of whom have been able to make any progress.

Even the US State Department are reliant upon the Swiss, whose reported inquiries have been rebuffed by the Iranians.

Attention matters. The world is literally watching. Voice your support. Be heard. Help to make a difference. A life is at stake.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Death of the American Newspaper (a continuing saga)

Well, it finally happened. Again.

I didn't make a big deal over the passing of the Rocky Mountain News. Perhaps because it was a tab. Perhaps because Denver has never struck me as a real two paper town. Perhaps because the alt weekly Westword is good enough to fill in the gap left by the loss the Rocky. Perhaps because I just missed it.

But I am not going to let the passing of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer go without notice. Seattle is a big town, with a news community covering a wide region, and stories that involve border and trade and international issues. So this is a big deal.

Of course we've all seen the trend, and shouldn't be significantly surprised by this. But it's happened, and now we have to deal with it.

Perhaps Seattle, once the city of grunge, then coffee, and of course always online (always if you only go back to the early '90's) is one of only a handful of major communities that can weather this situation. The city is disproportionally online, so that argues for people being able to continue to get news and information. And it's a young place, with a dynamic University community, and plenty of folks who aren't restricted by old media or old standards.

Still, a paper means something to a community. Perhaps even more than a sports team, or a museum, or even an orchestra. In this case, the PI had been operating in Seattle for 146 years. And even as it morphs f/t into an online publication, it won't be the same.

The question will be whether this is an example of change for the better, and whether other cities, when their papers fail, will be able to incorporate these changes as well as Seattle will likely be able to do.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

there's a time for advocacy.....

and that time is now.

Hard to take a position on a diplomatic issue when you're a working journalist. Hard to get involved in political affairs when you may cover them.

But when you're dealing with the human dynamic, that's a whole other thing, and all bets are off.

A week ago we learned that a very competent and very respectful and modest American journalist working in Iran was taken prisoner by Iranian authorities. Flouting their own law, the Iranians initially did not charge Roxana Saberi with a crime, did not provide her with the minimum requirements for incarceration set forth under Iranian law, and did not set a date for a hearing.

Well, Roxana is still in prison. Even after the positive news from Iran late last week that she would be released soon, no date has been set for a hearing. To me, this remains troubling.

I spoke a few moments ago with Roxana's father. I had spoken with him last weekend, when this story broke on NPR, and now, as then, he was both calm and reasoned in explaining what he knew, as well as what he hoped.

Here are some notes from that conversation, which also appeaers on FB.

I am sure we are all aware of the situation that RIAS fellow Roxana Saberi is in right now in Iran. She has been held in a prison for five weeks now, and just today, for the first time, she was able to see the lawyer hired by her parents. Roxana's father tells me that from the brief conversation with the lawyer, a conversation that may have been cut off by Iranian authorities, he learned that Roxana was alive.Just the mention of this is chilling, as Reza Saberi has been a rock throughout this ordeal, and to hear that he feared for the worst is an indication of how dire this situation is.So Roxana is now aware that she has counsel, that her parents are working on her release, and that many individuals and groups are making noise and expressing concern for her situation. Reza says that Roxana was stressed and depressed, according to the lawyer, but was quite pleased to hear that we are not only thinking of her, but trying to do what we can to win her release.Roxana has requested some books from her apartment, and it seems as though her lawyer might be able to visit with her again early this week.The lawyer still does not know when or even whether there will be a hearing for her release. Reza asked that we all continue 'in any way that we can to keep the story alive. We want her freedom. She has done nothing.' He anticipates speaking with the State Department again early this week, and noted that the comments of Hillary Clinton Thursday in Brussels was a good sign. There is an AP wire that moved just before 6pm today with some of this information.