Iranian prison keeps journalist in darkness


POSTED: Sunday, March 08, 2009

She's a voice you might have heard on the radio.

Sometimes, while waking up, I'd hear Roxana Saberi talk about women in Iran or some other story on National Public Radio's “;Morning Edition,”; and I'd smile in the predawn darkness.

“;I know her,”; I'd think. I remember her when she was still in college, when she got her first job in small market television in North Dakota, when she told me she had moved to Iran.

Last weekend, I heard Roxana's name on the radio again. But this time it wasn't her reporting. It was the news that she was arrested by the Iranian government and was being held without charges in an unknown location.

Her parents went public because they had not heard from her since Feb. 10 and feared for her safety. She had been working as a freelance journalist and was writing a book while pursuing a graduate degree at a Tehran university.

Roxana's father, Reza, is from Iran originally and her mother, Akiko, was born in Japan. She is a product of two, or more accurately three cultures — Iran, Japan and America.

Raised in Fargo, N.D., she is a former Miss North Dakota and was a finalist in the Miss America contest in 1997.

Talk with her and you know she is as proud of being Japanese as Iranian, and as she is of being American.

I know her because we were both members of the Asian American Journalists Association. In 1999, while a college student at Northwestern University in Chicago, she worked on the student television project at our UNITY journalism convention.

I caught up with her again when she was just starting out in local television news at a small station in North Dakota.

We had a fairly long talk in 2004 during another UNITY journalism convention. She told me she had moved to Tehran working for Feature Story News, a television news service, and also covered stories in the region outside of Iran, including in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon.

It was a lot of work — she had to shoot, write and edit her own stories — but a great opportunity for a serious journalist who wants to make a difference.

She was happy in Iran, learning about the place where her father was born, and felt safe there, even though Iran is the world's sixth-worst jailer of journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists Inc. There were five other journalists in Iranian prisons.

We exchanged cards and talked about visiting each other if I ever got to Tehran and if she was able to come to Honolulu.

I pray that Roxana is released soon and unharmed, so that I can fulfill my end of our conversation and take her out to lunch one day in Hawaii.

I have other friends like Roxana, whom I've met through AAJA and the Jefferson Fellowship for journalists at the East-West Center. We share a bond — a passion for journalism, although for them the risks of working in our common profession is much greater than for me.

One friend, a former journalist in Myanmar, told me matter-of-factly that one of his friends was sentenced to 20 years in prison for doing some reporting for the BBC.

Another friend, Amantha, from Sri Lanka, e-mailed a couple of months ago that his mentor — editor Lasantha Wickremathga of the Sunday Leader newspaper — was murdered in Colombo, apparently because of the stories he published.

They are voices on the radio, bylines on a page, reporters in faraway places working to bring understanding to an uncertain time.

It takes brave souls to shine light into dark corners of the world. And sometimes when those people get into trouble, we need to help light their way home.





How you can help

        The Committee to Protect Journalists has set up a petition on Facebook that will be delivered to the Iranian mission at the United Nations. If you don't belong to Facebook, you can still sign the petition by contacting CPJ (see below). The petition will be delivered tomorrow, so you still have time to sign.

On Friday, the Iranian news agency ISNA quoted a prosecutor who said Roxana Saberi will be freed in a few days. But CPJ and other supporters are waiting to see when she actually will be released and if there will be conditions attached to Saberi's freedom.


Middle East scholar Haleh Esfandiari was held in solitary confinement for 105 days in Tehran's notorious Evin prison. She credits publicity about her case and letters to the Iranian mission to the U.N. for helping secure her release.


Saberi is being held at Evin prison with other political prisoners.


To keep up to date on the efforts to free Roxana, two members of the Asian American Journalists Association have set up the Web site AAJA also has issued a statement demanding her release.


For more information on other political prisoners and journalists being held in Iran and other countries, visit Amnesty International and CPJ's Web sites.


Keeping informed and spreading the word about Roxana and other prisoners are the best ways to help them.