Jason Rezaian and the crackdown on journalism

My friend Jason Rezaian is in an Iranian prison, and I think about him every day. It’s bad enough that he has been locked away for months without trial. Worse is that he has been caught up in this nightmare simply because he practiced journalism. That makes him one of many victims in an escalating global war against the press and those who work for it. The first month of 2015 suggests that this will be a bad year for free expression.

A murderous attack against the writers and cartoonists at the Paris offices of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo was this month’s most horrific episode. It reflects once more how closely freedom of expression is bound up with the essential idea of open society. In Paris not just a single institution or country came under attack but liberté — an entire approach to life.

All rights have limits, including the right to free speech. Where those limits should be drawn is a legitimate subject for public debate. Murder, however, should never be a possible outcome of that debate. Nor should state repression. Yet the Paris attack was only the most brutal in a series that set this year off to a frightening start.

I began 2015 with a short trip to Mexico to visit the Yucatan’s Maya ruins. The day I arrived, three cars pulled up in front of the home of an activist and newspaper editor, Moisés Sánchez Cerezo, who has accused the mayor of Medellín de Bravo in Veracruz of various abuses. Nine men in ski masks grabbed him, along with his computer and cellphone, dragged him into a car and sped away. He has not been seen since. A local reporter who publicly demanded an investigation, Sayda Chiñas Córdova of Notisur, was summarily fired.

“The state government dictates editorial lines,” she said afterward, “and there is no way for journalists to present information critical of the state.”

A few days later, another grotesque episode unfolded in Saudi Arabia. After prayers in the port city of Jiddah, a Saudi prisoner, Raif Badawi, was taken to a public square and lashed 50 times. A court has sentenced him to be periodically lashed until he has received a total of 1,000 blows. His crime is to have written a blog called Free Saudi Liberals. Charges against him included “parental disobedience” and cybercrime.

Journalism becomes more important when institutions weaken. It also becomes more dangerous.

Governments often seek to control or criminalize the free distribution of information. In China this month, the Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti began serving the first full year of a life prison term for running what amounted to an information website about the Uighur world. Dozens of journalists have lost their jobs in Turkey; this month a former Turkish TV presenter, Sedef Kabas, was told that she is facing a five-year prison term for a tweet accusing the government of failing to fight corruption. A Belgian photographer and filmmaker, Michèle Sennesael, was arrested in Nicaragua and deported for trying to cover protests against construction of a Chinese-backed canal there. And in Egypt, three Al Jazeera reporters passed the one-year mark in their baseless captivity, victims of Egypt’s political turmoil.

This month my friend Jason, the Washington Post correspondent in Tehran, was finally charged with a crime after half a year at the ill-reputed Evin prison. He has not been told what the charge is or whether there will be a trial. Like Al Jazeera’s journalists jailed in Egypt, Jason is innocent of any crime — collateral damage in a larger power struggle. Those who have seized him probably know this. Yet journalists make tempting targets.

Last year Jason was the smiling guide in an Iran episode of the Anthony Bourdain CNN show “Parts Unknown.” Now, in a turn of fate that can truly be described as Kafkaesque, he has become a bargaining chip in an obscure competition among rival political factions. Hard-liners know that imprisoning a foreign newspaper correspondent for months without any pretense of justice makes Iran look like a repressive state and no decent partner for a respectable nation. That is the image of their country they hope to portray, as a way of blocking possible reconciliation between Tehran and Washington. Every day Jason sits in his cell strengthens their case.

Journalism becomes more important when institutions weaken. It also becomes more dangerous. This is true not only in Iran, China, Turkey, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Nicaragua but also in the United States.  January brought news that the documentary “Citizenfour,” about National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, has been nominated for an Academy Award. The film includes graphic clips of two senior U.S. officials — Director of National Intelligence Gen. James Clapper and NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander — denying under oath the existence of surveillance projects that they were later shown to have been directing. This was an extreme form of institutional weakness. Yet it did not lead to any sanction of the two generals, who misled Congress. Instead the leakers and journalists who collaborated to show Americans the truth were harassed, indicted and accused of undermining national security.

Threats to journalism came in many forms this month, including murder, kidnapping, disappearance, public lashing and continued unjust imprisonment. “Citizenfour” portrays another emerging threat: pervasive government surveillance. The film’s director, Laura Poitras, now lives in Germany. Glenn Greenwald, the journalist at the center of the story, has chosen Brazil. Neither feels safe working in the United States.

Stephen Kinzer is a former New York Times foreign correspondent who has covered more than 50 countries on five continents. He is the author of“Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq” and “The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles and Their Secret World War.” He is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, where he teaches international relations.

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