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Journalism as a crime

Journalism as a crime
Journalist and author Jason Rezaian. (Photo: Kyilah Terry/ UCLA.)

Northern California native and Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian discussed his 18-month ordeal as an Iranian prisoner and American bargaining chip.

By Kyilah Terry (UCLA 2019)

UCLA International Institute, June 3, 2019 — “I fell in love with [Tehran], but I was also trying to understand the place. It was a challenge trying to open up what was going on inside of Iranian society for an American readership,” said Jason Rezaian, Washington Post journalist and author of “Prisoner,” as he discussed his work in Iran at a book talk sponsored by the Burkle Center for International Relations. The talk was moderated by Kal Raustiala, director of the Burkle Center.

The book chronicles Rezaian’s experience in Iran, his arrest by Iranian police, closed-door trial conviction of espionage as well as his 18-month imprisonment in Teheran’s notorious Evin Prison. Rezaian writes of intrusive interrogations and absurd trials while weaving in aspects of internal Iranian politics and U.S.-Iranian relations - and contemplates whether he served as a bargaining chip during the Iran nuclear deal negotiations.

Who is Jason Rezaian? 

Rezaian holds both U.S. and Iranian citizenships and is married to Iranian journalist Yeganeh Salehi. His father born was born in Iran and emigrated to the United States in 1959.

At the time of his arrest by Iranian government forces in mid-2014, Jason Rezaian was the Tehran Bureau Chief of the Washington Post. Yeganeh Salehi was detained alongside her husband. A few months later, the U.S. State Department announced that Rezaian had been charged with a series of vague offenses. Rezaian was initially denied bail and an attorney. Secretary of State John Kerry personally advocated to have an attorney assigned to his defense. While her husband remained imprisoned, Salehi was released in October, a little more than two months after her arrest. 

In April 2015, Iranian authorities charged Rezaian with espionage, collaboration with hostile governments and propaganda against the establishment. At his trial, Rezaian’s own articles and interviews with government officials were used against him as (supposed) evidence. While his wife was imprisoned for slightly more than two months, Rezaian faced bleaker circumstances. He was jailed for 18 months, two months of which he spent in solitary confinement. Rezaian was frequently interrogated, subjected to psychological duress and often threatened with execution.

Some believe that the timing of Rezaian’s arrest, as well as that of three other American journalists, was used to influence Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in his administration’s nuclear proliferation negotiations with the United States.


Rezaian with Kal Raustiala, director of the Burkle Center, during the question-and-answer
session that followed the journalist's remarks. (Photo: Kyilah Terry/ UCLA.)


Rezaian described his book as interlacing his prison time with his personal experiences living and working in Iran. He also included his family’s experiences living between these two cultures. While reflecting on the initial stages of his writing process, Rezaian said, “I did not think the book would be a cautionary tale about being a journalist in a society that is run by authoritarian ideologues, but when I was released, I decided that I did not want it to be another prison memoir.”

When asked whether he would characterize himself as a hostage or a prisoner, Rezaian chose hostage, despite his book’s title. “Hostage is more accurate. The way that Iran has targeted foreign nationals is in a hostage-like manner. It's always a ploy to exert leverage and exact concessions,” explained the author.

It became difficult for Iranians to emigrate to the U.S. after the revolution of 1979. “U.S. society became very adversarial towards anyone with links with Iran and this continues today,” he said. “I did not want to make the impression of the Iranian people and society anymore negative than it has been inferred for years, but I also wanted to write a story about being American at this time in the world,” Rezaian noted.

Asked about contemporary U.S.-Iranian relations, he responded, “I don't think the president wants a conflict, but his security advisor John Bolton does. They believe that the same sort of negotiations conducted with North Korea will result in a similar deal with Iran, but I don't see how that is possible.”

Press freedom

“Iran has traditionally been a closed media landscape and continues to be,” commented Rezaian. “I think that little has changed in this regard, although there are still a lot of brilliant and intrepid journalists inside the country that want to get information out. Unfortunately, there is a system of permission required to work in journalism in Iran. However, technology and social media opportunities have been impossible for the state to suppress.”

“I don't have to be completely objective anymore,” said Rezaian referring to how his reporting has changed due to his prison experience, “but I do feel as though [I have] an extra layer of responsibility to get things right. Attacks on the free press around the world are not widely known and journalists are trying to find ways for people to care about this issue.”

Commenting on the fate of his Washington Post colleague Jamil Khashoggi, Rezaian said, “I was just forming a relationship with Khashoggi [a Saudi journalist widely believed to have been murdered by the Saudi government]. He loved Saudi Arabia and he believed that the Kingdom could and would do better. He didn't see himself as a dissident, but he understood that he was in exile.”