Former Matador Travel Writer Imprisoned for Writing About the Country He Loves

Iran Travel
by Matt Hershberger Oct 14, 2015

IN 2008, IRANIAN-AMERICAN JOURNALIST Jason Rezaian moved to Iran full-time to work as a freelance writer and journalist. Rezaian had been born and raised in California to an Iranian father, but held dual citizenship in both countries. This made him an ideal Iran destination expert for this publication when it was still in its infancy.

“I’m fortunate enough to be one of very few Americans able to travel freely to Iran,” he wrote. “With that country dominating the headlines once again, there are so many misconceptions swirling around about it. I’d love to help clear some of them up.”

This is a common thread throughout Rezaian’s work: both from his articles for Matador, where he wrote listicles and travel advice, through to his eventual work as the bureau chief for the Washington Post’s Iran desk, where he wrote about everything from the Iran nuclear deal to the country’s unexpected love of America’s national pasttime, baseball. He was an advocate for Iran, and knew that America’s simplistic view of the country was incomplete and dismissive of the country as a whole. While working for Matador and after, he used his position to help other Americans and other journalists arrange visas (and affordable trips) to Iran.

But being a journalist can be a risky business in Iran. On July 22, 2014, Jason and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, were arrested during a security force raid of their home.

Political prisoners

Iran has not been forthcoming with information about why they arrested Jason and Yeganeh. Early on, they suggested that the arrests had to do with security-related charges, but Iranian journalists found this to be ludicrous. “There is no doubt that these two have not committed any crimes,” a reporter, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran around three weeks after their arrest. “If there had been a crime, they would have announced it during that first week and they would have been put on trial. When ‘investigations’ take three weeks, it means that other goals are pursued through the arrests.”

Months later, in early October 2014, Yeganeh was released on bail, but Iranian officials did not release any information on Jason’s whereabouts. Around December, the U.S. State Department announced that Jason had been charged with unspecified offenses, but it wasn’t until April when Jason’s lawyer was finally allowed to read his indictment. The Post reported that he’d been accused of propaganda and of gathering “information ‘about internal and foreign policy’ and provided it to ‘individuals with hostile intent.’” The charges could potentially land him in prison for 10 to 20 years.

You may have noticed that “gathering information about internal and foreign policy” is an act frequently engaged in by journalists. Martin Baron, the editor of the Post, decried the accusations, saying, “It is absurd and despicable to assert, as Iran’s judiciary is now claiming, that Jason’s work first as a freelance reporter and then as The Post’s Tehran correspondent amounted to espionage or otherwise posed any threat to Iranian national security.”

The New York Times has reported that Jason is actually just a pawn in a much larger Iranian power struggle between the moderate President Hassan Rouhani and the anti-American conservatives, who would’ve gone after Jason as a power move. Rouhani, along with President Obama, just recently agreed on a nuclear disarmament deal, which has broadly been considered a massive step towards improving relations between Iran and the western world. Rezaian’s arrest and imprisonment could have complicated this process. President Obama sidestepped the issue by refusing to make Jason’s (and three other Americans’) release from captivity a condition of the talks.

High political intrigue is really the only thing that could possibly explain the arrest, as the evidence against Jason is embarrassingly flimsy: his “espionage” accusations rest on an application for an American visa for his wife, and a form letter he sent to the Obama administration in 2008 offering to help work for improved Iranian-American relations.

Regardless of weak case, this past week, it was revealed that Rezaian had been convicted of espionage. The sentence is not yet known. Jason’s older brother, Ali, says that Jason’s physical and mental health are deteriorating after over 14 months in Iran’s Evin prison.

After his conviction, the main hope for Jason’s release is a prisoner exchange with the United States, which President Rouhani has been hinting at for a while.

This is a man who loves and defends Iran

Considering all that Jason’s story contains — issues of freedom of speech and human rights, international diplomacy, Iranian internal power struggles, nuclear disarmament — it may seem silly and self-serving to return to a listicle he wrote for the Matador Network. But this is what we have to offer. In April 2008, he wrote an article for us titled, ”7 reasons you should travel to Iran now.” He lists the graciousness of the people, the richness of the culture, the beauty of the landscapes, and, of course, the affordability of the country as reasons to come visit. But he finished with this:

“By visiting Iran, you are making two statements: “I am my own person,” and “I will inform myself about the world.”

Iran has been demonized for decades, but nearly all people who travel there come home with their stereotypes shattered, replaced by fond memories of gracious hosts and unforgettable landscapes.”

Iran has an advocate in Jason Rezaian. They have in him a man who understood both the United States and Iran, and who believes that the two countries did not need to be at eternal loggerheads, and that they could eventually develop a mutual cultural appreciation.

This is one of the great tragedies of this story. All writers know that journalism springs from love. You can’t write about something you don’t care about deeply. So whenever a country suppresses a journalist, they squelch the voice of someone who loved their country, and who wanted better things for it. This is all too common in Iran, which has the sixth worst press freedom record in the world.

Jason Rezaian needs to be freed, and Iran needs to stop treating journalists working for the common good as criminals. And we should all remember that this type of oppression, regardless of where it’s happening in the world, actively destroys our best citizens, the ones that love us most.

Ways you can help

If you want to help secure the release of Jason Rezaian, or to help in the fight for press freedom more broadly, here’s what you can do:

  • The action page has tips for things you can do to help, including the number of the Iranian mission to the UN and a sample script for what to say to them.
  • Sign the petition for Jason’s release.
  • Follow #FreeJason on Twitter.
  • Educate yourself on worldwide press freedom at Reporters Without Borders, and consider donating to them.
  • Check out the Committee to Protect Journalists page.
  • Fight for freedom of the press in your own country.
  • Be the media: write and share your own experiences. Tell the world about the people and places you love.

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