500-plus days of injustice — Free Washington Post's Jason Rezaian

Dec 3, 2015

By Gene Policinski
Inside the First Amendment

Iran has now unjustly imprisoned Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian for more than 500 days — a travesty piled atop an absurdity that compounds a tragedy.

A travesty: A government official obliquely announced just before Thanksgiving that Rezaian has now been sentenced to an unspecified prison following his apparent conviction last month on sham espionage and other charges.

An absurdity: The sort-of announcement of a prison sentence followed a staged trial, based on fake charges, held in the shadows over several months, during which time no evidence was presented. Neither Rezaian's lawyer nor her client, who is being held in Tehran's brutal Evin prison, has even been informed of the verdict, let alone the sentence.

A tragedy: Only an "in-justice system" would jail an innocent person on trumped-up charges and imprison him in a brutal manner for no acceptable reason.

Iranian officials publicly have "sought to depict Mr. Rezaian as a nefarious spy who had used his credentials as a journalist as a ruse to gain insights that would be valuable to the Iranian government's enemies," The New York Timesreported Oct. 19. Those officials say Rezaian was "completely familiar with modern espionage methods."

Apparently, Iran has an absurd notion of "espionage" and its workings. Rezaian's last major story for the Post was a report on baseball gaining interest among some younger Iranians. Earlier, he had written about the hint of growing enthusiasm for American pop music. A charge of communicating with a foreign government may rest on a claim that Rezaian, eight years ago, submitted an online job application to the incoming Obama administration.

Rezaian's awful circumstance is all the worse because it's not a singular incident. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that "Iran was the second worst jailer of journalists in the world in 2014, after only China" — and it has been among the world's three worst jailers of the press every year since 2009. Human rights group Freedom House reported this year that "some 35 journalists and dozens of activists and human rights lawyers remained behind bars" in 2015, and "new arrests and prison sentences for media workers and online activists were reported throughout the year."

Rezaian, 39, who has both U.S. and Iranian citizenship, has been on assignment for the Post in Iran since 2012. Post editors have said much of his reporting was about people and life in Iran.

According to various news accounts, Iranian security police invaded Rezaian's home in July 2014 and arrested him with no warning. For a number of months, he was held in solitary confinement with inadequate medical care and no access to a lawyer. Brother Ali Rezaian said recently at a program at the National Press Club that Jason is depressed and "mad pretty much at everybody." Angry at the Iranian government for what it has done, and angry at the Obama administration for not making his release a requirement in talks with Iran about ending international economic sanctions in return for new limits on that nation's nuclear program.

Journalists gather information from a variety of sources and report what they know to others — the two essential processes of a free press. No journalist should be charged, jailed, tried or sentenced for just doing their job.

A nation such as Iran that purports to be ready to rejoin the world community, while repudiating charges of being a terrorist nation, must accept those tenets — and be held accountable if they do not.

Martin Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, put the travesty in more human terms as he marked the sad milestone: "Five hundred days robbed of his life, 500 days deprived of his family, 500 days denied any semblance of justice."

Respect a free press. Honor justice. Free Jason Rezaian.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at gpolicinski@newseum.org. Follow him on Twitter: @genefac.