The World Press Freedom Index was released by Reporters Without Borders this week. The report monitors the freedom of press across the world and ranks countries. Iran ended up on the 173rd spot out of 180 countries ranked.
The report mentions extensive control over the media landscape and harassment of independent journalists, citizen-journalists and independent media coupled with intimidation, arbitrary arrests and long sentences imposed by revolutionary courts at the end of unfair trials, as some of the factors that have made Iran an extremely difficult environment for journalists to work.
The Voice of America interviewed Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian who was imprisoned in 2014 in Iran for 544 days. Jason Rezaian discussed freedom of press around the world and his imprisonment in Iran.
VOA: Did democracy die in darkness? (a handy allusion onto the Washington post official slogan – the newspaper in which you work)
Jason Rezaian: I don't think democracy has died yet. And I hope that it lives on for our lifetimes and into into the future for many generations to come. But I do think that that is constantly under threat and in darkness. And when we talk about darkness, it could be the darkness of looming crises, but also the quieting or silencing of conversations publicly. Yes I think that that in particular is a big threat to democracy and one that we see playing out in different parts of the world. You don't have to look very far to see how traditionally democratic societies have been suffering in recent years, but also more acutely in the past few weeks because of the Corona virus pandemic. And it's played out in how they handle the media in their countries whether it's India, Hungary or many other places.
VOA: So, by your opinion, who is silencing the media and the public sphere?
Jason Rezaian:: Well, I think it's it's attempts to silence the media, right. I mean, here in the United States, I don't think that those attempts have been or will be particularly effective. But in many other countries, you know, there has been a power grab during this moment of pandemic where governments are calling states of emergency and really seizing almost unlimited power within their societies, something that their constitutions don't necessarily allow except in times of emergency. And that authoritarians or or leaders with authoritarian tendencies are are using this moment to really take power without any inclination of when that power power might be relinquished again back to normal circumstances.
VOA: What kind of an indicator are the murders of Jamal Khashoggi, Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, and a Slovak investigative reporter Jan Kuciak which happened it the past several years?
Well, I think that this attack on journalists has been growing in recent years.
There was a time when journalists were fairly safe doing their work in most parts of the world. But unfortunately, some leaders in different parts of the world have decided that that attacking journalists and murdering journalists is an effective way to silence dissent and criticism in their countries. In the case of my colleague Jamal Khashoggi, of course, the Saudi Arabian government is not a democracy.
It's never been a democracy. But the idea that they would go to another country inside a diplomatic mission of their own in another country while this gentleman was living and working in the United States. For the paper of record of the US capital, it's astounding. And in a way, designed to be astounding. It's designed to scare other critics and journalists into silence. In the two murders that in Europe that you mentioned, similar forces or similar. Intention, but of of people who may have been outside of government in those places or involved with organized crime in conjunction with the governments. You know, in the case of of Daphne and Jan Kuciak act there uncovering massive corruption within their societies and the notion that that. The journalists will be killed in the heart of Europe is again astounding, frightening and something that everybody should be worried about.
Q: Who do you think will win? The people who are searching for the truth or the people who are trying to cover the truth by killing journalists and by any other means?
Jason Rezaian: I think in this is a long race and I believe in the long run. Truth and transparency always prevail. But in the short run, I fear that more journalists will be suppressed, harassed, imprisoned, unfortunately killed. And I think that this is a trend that's going to continue until until society globally decides that it's unacceptable.
VOA: Now we're gonna have a little part about Corona virus. Is the lack of transparency in reporting about the coronavirus pandemic, imposed by a number of governments, could have been the reason for its worldwide outbreak? RSF was mentioning China in that matter, but there are other countries like Iran.
Jason Rezaian:I do believe that governments desire to suppress information about the corona virus outbreaks within their own borders. Been a big part of why the virus has spread quickly in some places and not in others. My wife who works for the Committee to Protect Journalists, recently published an op-ed in support of a campaign that CPG and other free to press freedom organizations are currently involved with called Hashtag Free Press, which is essentially a call on governments around the world who are currently imprisoning journalists to release those journalists. During this period of pandemic, because any journalist who's behind bars is by definition a political prisoner. And it's no coincidence that there are reporters in China and other places who have been arrested and disappeared because of their early reporting on this outbreak. This is a moment when when journalists provide very essential role in our understanding of this virus and how it's spreading and how it's affecting communities. And if we don't have access to that information, it's only going to get worse.
VOA: So what do you think it could have been done to make the situation better?
Jason Rezaian: Look, think that the the best solution is always transparency. You know, if we have accurate accounting for what's going on, if we know what the limitations of any government's ability to respond to the pandemic are. It gives us as citizens the opportunity to make decisions for ourselves. If you were to tell a population that, look, we don't know anything about this virus, we don't have any means of protecting you from this virus. And we're suggesting that you stay home for the foreseeable future. In most countries we see people trust that. But when you have a situation where initially the government says there is no problem, we don't have a problem. That's a foreign problem. It doesn't affect our country. And then all of a sudden, you know, there is a major outbreak inside a country. It really chips away at the at the credibility of not only the government, but the public's sense of trust in information that they're getting. So I am always one for transparency.
VOA: You were imprisoned for 544 days in Iran on serious charges by the Iranian regime – among which was “espionage” and “propaganda against the establishment”. Almost year and a half…. How do you recall that time? What were your fears and thoughts? Did you ever regret because of your work?
Jason Rezaian: I have never regretted becoming a journalist. Never regretted moving to Iran to practice journalism and never regretted any story that I did from there. I was arrested and accused of charges that the offenses that I was accused of were very, very serious. But the accusations of what I did could not be taken seriously. I mean, a very farcical, ridiculous situation that I was put in. Again, similarly to some of the other cases that I talked about, it was designed to be astounding. It was designed to create headlines at a time when the US and Iran and other world powers were negotiating over the future of Iran's nuclear program. I think that we learned a lot of lessons in that situation. One about how the the government of Iran operates and the internal divisions within that country, but also about how to effectively or ineffectively they use the news media as a way to amplify a story. It worked to amplify my case and in turn led to my release I believe. But it also worked to to undermine the Iranian case that they are a legitimate government that follows international norms.
VOA: How were you treated during the imprisoning?
Jason Rezaian: The question of how I was treated while I was in prison is a very difficult one to answer because I only have my own experience to go on. I tell people that my wife and I were taken by surprise at our apartment. All of our possessions were ransacked. whole home was gone, gone through our identification. All of our passwords for our devices were seized. We were blindfolded and handcuffed and taken to prison. We were put into solitary confinement, very small, confined spaces held there for weeks without communication with the outside world, essentially starved. Not given proper access to medicine or hygiene. Forced to endure 24 hours of light every day. So we were deprived of sleep during that time. We were also put through relentless interrogations without the benefit of any sort of legal counsel. We were also obviously not provided with any evidence of the supposed crimes that we committed. We were threatened with execution and dismemberment. And this went on for many many months. Besides that it was great.
VOA: What does a person and a journalist need to get through such troubling/difficult experience – and to continue their life and work afterwards?
Jason Rezaian:I think the key to getting through the the actual experience of being falsely imprisoned and held against your will for a very long period of time is.Is to maintain a sense of hope and a sense of humor. I think we have to do that in every aspect of our lives. And that's not easy to do sometimes. But you have to find a way. People who say to me that they are that they could not survive what I survived. I tell them, of course you could. I just hope that you're never subjected to that situation. We all have resilience inside us that helps us get through situations that we never expected that we could we could manage until we're putting them. But then when you come out, especially after the sort of isolation that I was in, I didn't have access to information or contact with with the outside world very much during that year and a half. You know, you need a strong family and a community of people, it's your employer, your friends other people who are willing to support you and take the time with you to to really heal, because it's a long term process that now more than four years later. Since my release, I'm still going through.