Raising visibility for journalists imprisoned by Iran

Journalist Maziar Bahari was held for months in a Tehran prison after being arrested while on assignment. He's written a memoir of that ordeal, "Then They Came for Me,” plus directed a documentary called "Forced Confessions." Now he's launched a website that he's hoping will draw more attention to the dangers facing journalists in Iran. Bahari discusses the project with William Brangham.

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    We turn now to Iran, and a new effort to bring freedom to the all the jailed reporters there.

    Correspondent William Brangham has more.


    Earlier this week, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian had his second day in an Iranian court. Rezaian has been locked up in a Tehran prison for nearly a year. He's facing charges of espionage and propaganda.

    Very little is known about his legal proceeding. A semi-official Iranian news agency reported that Rezaian, who has dual Iranian and U.S. nationality, defended himself in English during his court session.

    His case highlights the dangers facing reporters in that country. This week, a new Web site launched that is hoping to draw more attention to those dangers and to other reporters who are imprisoned in Iran. The Web site is called JournalismIsNotACrime.com.

    Its founder is no stranger to the cause. Maziar Bahari was held for months in a Tehran prison after being arrested in 2009 while on assignment for "Newsweek." His memoir of that ordeal, "Then They Came For Me," was the basis for Jon Stewart's feature film "Rosewater." Bahari has also directed his own film, a documentary called "Forced Confessions," about detained writers, journalists, and scholars in Iran.

    He joins me now to talk about his latest project.

    Maziar Bahari, thanks for joining us.

  • MAZIAR BAHARI, Former Newsweek Correspondent:

    Nice to be here.


    So, we know about Jason Rezaian's case. How many other journalists are locked up in Iran right now?


    At the moment, we can say about 50, because it's a revolving door. They let someone — let some people go out of prison. Then they arrest some people, but Iran — 50 professional journalist and bloggers are in prison right at the moment.


    And why is it that Iran is locking these people up? What have they been accused of doing?


    The official accusation for most of these people is endangering the national security.

    But that can include revealing secrets, dealing between different governments, or it can be just exposing corruption in a school. So anything from a minor reporting, investigative reporting, to a major story can be regarded as undermining national security.


    So, it's just this incredibly broad definition that allows the government to basically lock people up whose views they don't seem to like?


    Well, that is the problem with Iran, that the government — because it's not really secure about its own legitimacy, is trying to make everyone's life as insecure as possible.

    They want everyone to be on their toes. They want everyone to be careful about what they're writing, what they are saying, what they are publishing.


    So, do you have any sense of how these reporters are being treated while they're locked up?


    It depends.

    And one of the reasons we started this project is to make the government accountable for what it does. When President Rouhani or his foreign minister, Mr. Javad Zarif, if they come to the United States and the journalists ask them, why do you arrest journalists, they say that this is not our responsibility. The Iranian judiciary is an independent body. We are not involved in this.

    And when you talk about the judiciary, they say that these journalists are in prison not because of journalism. It is because of other crimes.

    So no one wants to take responsibility for what happens in Iran. What we want to say is that we want to make the government accountable for the interrogations that journalists are suffering, the torture they're suffering, the physical torture and the psychological torture.

    And in our experience, in my own experience, we know that if you raise the profile of a journalist or of any other prisoner in Iran, the possibility of physical torture or — of them suffering physical torture or psychological torture is less.

    When you're unknown in an unknown prison in Iran, there is more chance of you suffering from psychological and physical torture. And there is also more chance of you even getting killed by an interrogator who is not accountable to anyone.


    But how far does that accountability go? I mean, we have heard reports that John Kerry as high in the U.S. government has brought up the case of Jason Rezaian repeatedly with the Iranian government, and yet he still remains clouded in secrecy in this horrible circumstance.

    How much do you think your project can really do to change the outcomes for these reporters?


    We are trying to make the Iranian government accountable.

    But our project also tries to help individual Iranian journalists to have legal and psychological help. When I came out of prison, after 107 days in solitaire confinement, 118 days in prison, I was lucky enough to have "Newsweek" magazine as my employer. They provided a lawyer for me. They provided a psychologist for me.

    But most of my colleagues in Iran, they do not have that opportunity. So, what we do on the site is that we have a legal team who can help the journalists and their families with their legal questions, and also we have psychologists on our team that they can help them.

    Jason's case, unfortunately, has become — I can say that Jason is a victim of an infighting between the different factions within the government. The people who arrested Jason are the Revolutionary Guards. They also arrested me. And they are trying to use Jason's case as a leverage against the Rouhani government during the nuclear negotiations.

    Unfortunately, this is the situation for Jason and many other journalists, that the government is using them for different — for a variety of reasons.


    The Web site is JournalismIsNotACrime.com.

    Maziar Bahari, thank you very much for coming in.


    Nice to be here. Thank you.

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