His Story Shows Why We Need To Protect Journalists Abroad

Photo: Maarten de Boer/Getty Images
Maziar Bahari.
Maziar Bahari considers himself lucky.

That may be an understatement for the Iranian-Canadian journalist, who — only six years ago — spent 118 days surviving physical and psychological torture in Iran’s notoriously brutal Evin Prison in Tehran.

Bahari — who covered Iran for a decade as a Newsweek correspondent — was on the ground in 2009, when the reelection of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sparked allegations of election fraud and widespread protests.

In the immediate aftermath, Iranian intelligence officers knocked on the doors of Bahari’s family home and arrested him without informing him of any charges he faced. He was later accused of being a spy for the CIA, Israel’s Mossad, Britain’s MI6, and even Newsweek. After nearly four months, he was released and allowed to leave the country.

Bahari's story was told worldwide when Rosewater, former Daily Show host Jon Stewart’s film based on Bahari's experience and memoir, was released last year. But sadly, his experience of imprisonment is not an isolated case.

At least 221 journalists were imprisoned worldwide in 2014, including 30 in Iran, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The number of detainees in Iran increases to 46 when social media activists are included, Impact Iran estimates.

Treatment of journalists in Iran has been in the headlines once again with the case of The Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian, who has spent more than 500 days in detention for espionage-related charges in the same prison in Tehran.

Refinery29 spoke with Bahari about his experience and the importance of protecting press freedom ahead of his recent appearance at the United Nations campus in New York, where he participated in a Rosewater screening and panel on human rights in Iran organized by the advocacy effort Journalism Is Not A Crime.

Why should ordinary individuals care about the imprisonment of journalists and press freedoms overseas?
"Everything that happens in a country affects people in other countries. It doesn’t matter if it’s an election in Burma, a coup in Mali, or a bombing in Syria, whatever happens in one part of the world affects other people in another part of the world.

"That’s why they have to care about what is happening to journalists in the rest of the world. Journalists basically have this supervisory role — not only in the U.S., but in different countries — to tell people the truth about what is going on, to hold the government accountable, to hold all powers accountable, not only governments. It can be corporations, it can be different institutions, and it can be celebrities, sometimes.

"Just to hold them accountable, to create some transparency, and through that transparency, through journalists being able to do their job, we will live in a more transparent, accountable, secure world. If we really care about our security, if we really care about living in a safe world, then we have to care about journalists being able to work freely, independently, and with freedom."

Do you think Jon Stewart’s film, Rosewater, made people care more?
"The fact that Jon Stewart, with his high profile, being a celebrity, being someone who is quite influential, especially on young people, cared about an issue in another country and identified with another character from another country, took time to make a film, edit it, and publicize it — it’s a step forward. But no single film, no single campaign, nothing can change people’s minds or change the world.

"These are all small steps we all have to take. Jon Stewart took a big step by making the film. I am taking as many steps as I can — different people, if they sign a petition, like a Facebook page, or tweet, they are taking their own steps. We all have to take part in this global campaign for more transparency, more accountability for different governments."

We all have to take part in this global campaign for more transparency, more accountability for different governments

Maziar Bahari

Some critics argue that films depicting the human rights violations enacted by other countries, such as Argo, can reaffirm problematic misconceptions. Do you think Iran is portrayed fairly in Rosewater?
"I think this is the most authentic non-Iranian film made about Iran, and maybe one of the reasons is that I was involved in it every step of the way. From what I know, they did not have the same thing in Argo. I think Jon Stewart, coming from a Hollywood background, he really cared about the story — the nuance of it — he tried to make it as authentic and true to the story as possible.

"Of course it is an American film, with a Mexican actor playing an Iranian, so it was not 100% authentic. But at the same time, he never claimed that it is the authentic Iranian film. He always said that he’s never been to Iran and it’s just a recreation of Iran."

Are you still recovering from the physical and psychological torture inflicted on you by the Iranian government?
"The physical torture that I suffered was kind of an anomaly in Iran. [Rosewater featured] more psychological torture. [But] what is shown in the film is what is happening on a regular basis, not only in Iran, but all around the world.

"People inside the Iranian government became more sophisticated, because they were people who were tortured before the revolution itself. So they know what torture [methods] can be most effective. They have learned to use psychological pressure far more than physical pressure, because there is no limit to psychological pressure. You can’t torture people physically as much as you want. As a result, [psychological torture] has longer-term consequences.

They have learned to use psychological pressure far more than physical pressure, because there is no limit to psychological pressure. As a result, it has longer-term consequences.

Maziar Bahari
"What I am struggling with now, and many people are struggling with, are longer-term consequences. I have been very lucky, because I had a good employer. I was afforded therapy. I had a lawyer. I had friends. I had a life outside of Iran. I had venues to express my anger; I supplement my anger into something more positive. I am relatively unscathed by the experience.

"The people in Iran, Iranian journalists who are imprisoned in a small prison cell inside the country, and then are released into a much bigger prison called Iran itself [and] are under constant surveillance, under constant pressure — their lives are being ruined in front of them, their lives are being ruined in front of their own eyes. They do not see any light at the end of the tunnel."

How might Jason Rezaian's case compare to your experience in 2009?
"The problem with Jason’s case is it [got] coverage in the beginning and that might have hurt him. We do not know what is happening to him. We don’t know what’s going on. Based on my case, I can tell you whenever there was external pressure, I could sense there was less pressure on me inside prison. The behavior inside the prison was changing.

"Of course, I did not know exactly what was going on outside of solitary confinement. However, when I came out and researched my imprisonment, finding out what publicity was happening outside, I could relate those moments inside prison to the campaign outside. That is an important force in terms of the humanitarian aspect of what is happening inside.

"Also, what the Iranian government is doing puts a lot of pressure on prisoners when they are isolated in the first few hours and days of their arrest, in order to extract a confession and use it against them later on. So, from what we hear, Jason has confessed to certain things. We don’t know what they are. He probably confessed to those things in the first few days, when there [wasn't] any publicity and there was a lot of pressure on him. They just put the pressure, because Jason is not someone who is coming from a political background. He is not a political activist. I was not a political activist. I did not know what was going on. So maybe they told him: 'We will release you if you confess to these things and don’t worry about it.' And then, they use those things against him. They put a lot of pressure on him — and being a simple journalist, a simple human being, people break under pressure. This is why we need a campaign immediately when someone is imprisoned."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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