“Our Society Will Be a Free Society”

Newsweek's Maziar Bahari on press freedom in Iran

Maziar Bahari endured beatings, interrogation, and solitary confinement during his 118 days in a Tehran prison cell this past year. Yet he calls himself “lucky.”

Arrested last summer during Iran’s post-election unrest, the Newsweek correspondent was released from prison in October and allowed to leave the country. In the months following those protests, at least 100 Iranian journalists have cycled in and out of prison, according to Bahari. But none of those freed have been allowed to leave Iran.

“They are always in danger of being incarcerated again,” says Bahari, who notes that currently at least forty-seven Iranian journalists are behind bars—the highest number of incarcerated reporters in the world, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). “That is the way the Iranian government likes to operate,” says Bahari. “They want them to have this insecure environment so everyone is on his or her toes.”

Bahari’s ordeal began on June 21, 2009, when four men yanked him from his mother’s Tehran home and charged him with espionage. Their evidence against him was his affiliation with Western media—including, bizarrely, an interview he gave to Comedy Central’s satirical news program The Daily Show in the run-up to Iran’s elections. In a powerful, detailed account published in Newsweek in November, Bahari described his daily interrogations and brutal beatings. He was released from prison after nearly four months, thanks to his high-profile reputation and an aggressive publicity campaign by his employer and groups like CPJ.

“They could put a face on my name,” he says. “It was one page in The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times or other magazines with my face on it. That put pressure on the Iranian government to release me.” Bahari was able to exit Iran on October 20, arriving in London just in time for the birth of his first child.

Other journalists in his situation lack the same resources and exposure. “What can we do with [those] journalists who don’t have foreign employers?” says Bahari. “Even their names are more difficult to pronounce than mine.”

At least twenty-six Iranian journalists have been jailed in the past two months alone. As prison conditions worsen, Bahari said that it is imperative to shed light on their cases. He says his confidential sources in Iran report that beatings, isolation, and psychological torture have increased since his October release.

Among those currently held are journalist Emadeddin Baghi, also a well-known author and human rights defender; Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, an award-winning editor and press freedom advocate; and Shiva Nazar Ahari, a human rights journalist who has been jailed twice in the last eight months.

Bahari is part of a new coalition called “Our Society Will Be a Free Society,” which hopes to pressure the Iranian government to free its captive journalists. The effort is named after a pledge the Ayatollah Khomenei made during the 1979 Iranian revolution to protect freedom of expression and the press.

Recent attacks on journalists come amid a broader government crackdown on public opposition. Following massive street protests in late December, officials and paramilitary forces arrested over 1,000 demonstrators. Three weeks ago, it hanged two of them and announced plans for more executions.

Earlier this month, the government went to great lengths to curb protests on the thirty-first anniversary of the Islamic Republic. Thousands of baton-wielding police and militia forces crowded Tehran’s streets on the eve of the holiday in order to discourage protestor turnout. Despite pockets of demonstrators, the effort was the most effective suppression of public dissent in recent memory.

“The question is, how long can they sustain that kind of pressure?” Bahari says of the government’s suppression. “I don’t think they can sustain it for long.”

However, enacting long-term change in Iran could take years, predicts Bahari. He points out that the Soviet Union took decades to fall.

“Don’t think of it as an action film, where you have Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone come and rescue people,” he says. Watching for change in Iran is “more of an Antonioni or Bergman film—you have to really absorb it.”

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Christopher Livesay covers human rights at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.