Tehran's Opportunity
Rights for a Jailed Journalist

By Jon Meacham
Monday, July 13, 2009

Maziar Bahari is a Newsweek reporter, a documentary filmmaker, a playwright, author, artist and, since June 21, a prisoner being held in Iran without formal charges or access to a lawyer. The Iranian state press has attached Bahari's name to a "confession" made in vague terms and conditional tenses about foreign media influence on the unrest in Iran that followed the declaration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's reelection on June 12.

Some in the government of Iran would like to portray Bahari as a kind of subversive or even as a spy. He is neither. He is a journalist; a man who was doing his job, and doing it fairly and judiciously, when he was arrested. Maziar Bahari is an agent only of the truth as best he can see it, and his body of work proves him to be a fair-minded observer who eschews ideological cant in favor of conveying the depth and complexity of Iranian life and culture to the wider world. Few have argued more extensively and persuasively, for instance, that Iran's nuclear program is an issue of national pride, not just the leadership's obsession.

Bahari, 42, studied filmmaking in Montreal and became a Canadian citizen. Since 1998 he has worked for Newsweek in Tehran, where his stories have reflected both his experience in the street and his ability to reach some of the most senior figures in government. But he is probably best known internationally for his documentary films. One striking example is his 2002 HBO documentary "And Along Came a Spider," which grew out of reporting for Newsweek. It tells the story of a serial killer in the Iranian city of Mashhad whose murders of 16 prostitutes remained unsolved for years. He has made films about drummers in Africa and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq, as well as a slew of documentaries about Iran and its people.

No one, not even Bahari, was able to predict just how volatile Iran would become after the June election. One tumultuous week after the vote, he was one of the few members of the press invited to attend the Friday prayer service where the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made clear that further protests would not be tolerated. Two days later, at 7 a.m., government agents with a warrant showed up at the home where Bahari lives with his elderly mother. The agents, who did not identify themselves or the branch of government they worked for, treated Bahari and the rest of the family politely but firmly. They seized his computer and took him into custody.

For more than a day, his family and Newsweek were unable to determine his whereabouts. After another day, Bahari was allowed to call home to his mother. At 83, Molouk Bahari is still a strong, resolute woman. But her life has been marked by tragedy: In the past three years she has lost her husband, her eldest son and her daughter. Maziar is her only child left in this world, and his arrest has been almost too much for her. "I don't know when these terrible things are going to stop happening," she says. "There is no reason for him to be held like this."

Given the nature of life in Iran in 2009, the government's attempts to exert control over the country and over the world's impressions of the events unfolding there are understandable, if regrettable. But history tells us that the degree to which dissent is tolerated is a measure of a government's strength, not its weakness -- and Bahari was not demonstrating, only reporting.

With respect, then, we ask the government of Iran to grant Bahari the rights he is guaranteed under Iranian law: that he be allowed to see a lawyer and, if there are no charges against him -- and we believe there should be no charges -- that he be released immediately.

We say again: Maziar Bahari is a journalist whose fairness is evident in any reasonable survey of his work. His case is an opportunity for the government of Iran to show that it is a well-intentioned member of the family of nations, a country to be taken seriously and on its own terms. It is an opportunity, we respectfully submit, that should not be missed.

Only twice in two weeks has Bahari been able to make a phone call. The second time, as with the first, he dialed his mother. Both times he told her not to worry, that he was doing all right. But Molouk, who was one of the few women of her generation to attend university in Iran and who has a degree in chemistry, is not fooled by her son's efforts to make her feel better. "I just want Maziar to come home," she said the day he was arrested. "I just want my son back." As do we.

The writer is editor of Newsweek.

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