Media commentators are speaking out against the Oct. 12 conviction of The Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, an Iranian-American who has been imprisoned in Tehran for more than a year. Though Iranian officials have accused Rezaian of espionage, the precise nature of his recent conviction remains unclear. According to the Post, it is also unclear what will happen to Rezaian in the coming weeks.
For months, various family members, politicians, and news editors have been decrying Rezaian’s detainment, with the Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron releasing an official statement Monday condemning the conviction itself. Baron’s statement outlines the efforts made by the Post, alongside Rezaian’s family and legal counsel, to secure his freedom.
These efforts are admirable in their scope and passion. Yet, Rezaian’s detainment and conviction raises some uncomfortable questions about the current strategies for keeping journalists out of prison — especially when those journalists are citizens of the politically tense nations being covered.
Rezaian holds both U.S. and Iranian citizenship, and it is his Iranian citizenship that Tehran officials have chosen to recognize. The same thing happened to Iranian-Canadian reporter Maziar Bahari, who was imprisoned during the 2009 Green Movement protests in Iran. In both cases, the Iranian government refused to recognize the reporters’ U.S. or Canadian citizenship, instead asserting that as Iranians, they were subject to Iranian law.
Reporters with multiple perspectives on nation and ethnicity are undeniably valuable to news organizations. They can help news editors and audiences understand the cultures that operate differently from their own. Yet, news editors need to think more carefully — ahead of time — about how they plan to protect these journalists, should their citizenship get them into trouble. Far too often the strategy for handling this persecution is reactive instead of proactive.
News organizations need a proactive plan for assessing the risk of imprisonment in politically tense regions. This plan needs to overtly consider the relevance of the journalists’ ethnicity and citizenship. These perspectives are enormously relevant to the news coverage itself, and editors should not simply stop working with journalists who hail from nations like Iran. Instead, they need to think even more consciously about socio-cultural difference, taking seriously the unique dangers that these particular reporters might face.