US arrest of Iranian-American journalist marks a rival role-reversal

PressTV journalist Marzieh Hashemi talks during a press conference in Tehran on February 2, following her detention in the US and her return to Iran. ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

On January 23, throngs of cheering supporters greeted an Iranian state television anchor in Tehran after she spent 10 contentious days in American custody—a period marked by vocal outcry, criticism from press freedom organizations, and coverage from prominent news outlets. Marzieh Hashemi’s employer, the state-run English-language network PressTV, carried her airport arrival live. In footage, schoolgirls wave paper Iranian flags.

The arrest of Hashemi, 59, in St. Louis struck many as mysterious from its outset. Hashemi, who is black, was born Melanie Franklin in New Orleans. She took her Iranian husband’s last name, converted to Islam, and became a dual citizen through marriage. Prior to her arrest, Hashemi was in the US filming a documentary about Black Lives Matter. Little was known about the reason for her arrest until a judge unsealed Hashemi’s federal court order, revealing she was arrested to be deposed as a material witness in an unspecified criminal case. In coverage of Hashemi’s arrest, which did not involve criminal charges against the reporter, legal scholars and Muslim civil rights activists said such material-witness laws are constitutionally questionable and have been abused. Hashemi, during a press conference after her return, said such laws are “used against blacks and Muslims across the West.”

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Iranian-American journalists have been detained at length in Iran without cause repeatedly in the past. Hashemi’s arrest, however, marks the first time an Iranian-American journalist has faced detention in the US.

“What happened to me tells the story of both Iran and the West,” Hashemi said during the press conference. “What we need to do together is to push for human rights and respect for people, but not through the false narrative of America.” Asked whether her work as a journalist was respected in the US, Hashemi said, “What I saw was a campaign of disrespect and intimidation.”

The Iranian government is using Hashemi’s arrest to highlight unfair targeting of Muslims and African-Americans by American law enforcement, Johns Hopkins University professor Narges Bajoghli says, essentially by identifying an ideological thread between policies like stop-and-frisk and the travel ban. Such arguments, made repeatedly—“not only in Iranian media, but also in Muslim organizations in the West,” Bajoghli says—helped develop visible public support for Hashemi.

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Her release leaves experts to wonder how her arrest might shape US-Iran relations, which have been nil since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, and whether journalists, used by hardline factions within Iranian government as negotiating chips, might be more vulnerable as a result.

“The Trump administration asserts that it is working to secure the release of Americans held in Iran, and the arrest of Ms. Hashemi could be connected to this,” Barbara Slavin, an Iran expert and director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran initiative, says. “At the same time, I’ve seen no indication that the US has opened a channel to Iran to secure the release of American detainees. So this may be a kind of psychological warfare.” Slavin adds that it’s too soon to know how the motivations behind Hashemi’s arrest in the US compare to “Iran’s detention of dual national journalists, often on bogus charges.”

Hashemi’s detention put the Committee to Protect Journalists in the rare position of calling on American officials to explain the arrest.

Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter and Iranian-American dual citizen, told the Committee to Protect Journalists last year that Iran “arrests dual nationals as Iranians, denies them all their rights…and then dangles them as trade bait to the governments of their other nationality.” Rezaian, whose new book details his 544 days of captivity in an Iranian prison, says such arrests are “the height of hypocrisy and literally no one is fooled by it.”

Rezaian’s 2016 release occurred the same day as the Iran nuclear deal was implemented. He has sued the Iranian government for millions of dollars in damages, alleging that he was taken “hostage and psychologically tortured by the Iranian government to extract U.S. concessions,” per The Washington Post. Coverage of Hashemi’s arrest carried a similar whiff of international intrigue; as the Times noted, it closely followed official word that Iran had detained an American since July 2018, and came as European leaders scrambled to salvage the nuclear deal.

Other dual-national journalists have experienced lengthy detentions in the country. Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian and former Newsweek journalist was imprisoned for 118 days before reuniting with family in London and has since launched a news site called Iranwire. Bahari’s complaints that PressTV, where Hashemi works, aired his forced confession led British officials to ban the station from broadcast in 2012.

Founded in 2007, PressTV was still a fledgling network when protests over the disputed 2009 presidential election roiled Iran and gave rise to the reformist Green Movement. At that time, says Bajoghli, whose research focuses on media and powerful political factions, “the station took the regime’s line in not reporting on the suppression of the movement and attributing the protests to foreign agents.” This editorial direction, she adds, caused a minor exodus of Western journalists and pundits who appeared on PressTV in its early days. Hashemi was among those who defended the expulsion of media during a violent state crackdown on protests following the disputed 2009 presidential election, during an interview with NPR. Accusations of anti-Semitism and flawed coverage have dogged the station for years. Attempts to reach Hashemi and PressTV officials in Tehran were unsuccessful.

Hashemi’s detention put the Committee to Protect Journalists in the rare position of calling on American officials to explain the arrest. According to CPJ, not one of the 251 journalists imprisoned around the world last year were locked up in the US; by comparison, Iran imprisoned eight. In a statement, CPJ’s Alexandra Ellerbeck expressed the committee’s concern over the incident, and urged the Justice Department “to immediately disclose the basis for her detention.”

During her detention, Hashemi’s colleagues took to the streets to demand her freedom, outside the United Nations building in Tehran. Employees of Iranian state news organizations IRIB and PressTV, who face censorship and strict rules for news production under the Iranian regime, rallied in the streets to call on American officials to release their colleague. Prior to her release, one hardline Iranian newspaper went so far as to compare Hashemi’s arrest with the execution of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi of The Washington Post.

Ahead of Hashemi’s return, official response from Tehran was ample and vocal. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took to airwaves and Twitter to demand Hashemi’s release, dubbing her arrest a “political ploy” in an interview with state news and calling out American racism.

Taken with barbs like Zarif’s comments, it won’t be lost on Iranian audiences that Hashemi’s Black Lives Matter documentary will, if true to life, end with her own arrest.

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Shaya Tayefe Mohajer teaches journalism at the University of Southern California and works as a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. Previously, she was the news editor for TakePart.com and a reporter for The Associated Press. She is a graduate of New York University's masters program in journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Shaya_in_LA.