Roxana Saberi, the American-Iranian journalist sentenced to eight years in prison for alleged espionage, is expected to be freed today. Ms. Saberi's release is cause for celebration, however, she was not the only journalist languishing in Iran's prisons. In Iran, the brutal suppression of free speech and a free press is routine. As a dual national who worked for leading media outlets, Ms. Saberi's case has generated headlines and outrage. By contrast, the cases of dozens of Iranian journalist, bloggers, and activists are often overlooked.
Roxanna Saberi's case is serious, but it was manipulated by the Iranian regime and used to draw attention away from the cases of other imprisoned media workers and bloggers. Even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian President, feigned an interest in Ms. Saberi's case and demanded a fair trial, doubtless to boost his image and popularity. For the Iranian authorities, this was all part of a diplomatic game. Possible explanations for the Iranian regime's detention of Ms. Saberi ranged from a bid to test President Obama's position on Iran, to using Saberi as leverage to negotiate the release of two Iranian officials that U.S. forces captured during a raid in Iraq in 2007.
The Iranian authorities have certainly shown that they have learned from previous high profile cases. Ms. Saberi's strong international support and solidarity gave her some protection against bodily harm. Her family visited her and there were no reports of mistreatment or abuse. This is an important change from the 2003 death in custody of Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian-Iranian photojournalist. Iranian officials claimed Kazemi died of a stroke, but a former staff physician stated that her body showed severe signs of torture and rape. Following the outrage over Ms. Kazemi's death, the Iranian authorities are now careful not to torture and beat individuals with dual nationalities.
However, those without international attention for their cases face the prospect of torture and death. In March, Omidreza Mirsayafi, a 29-year old Iranian blogger, died in Tehran's Evin prison. Mr. Mirsayafi was denied medical care while in custody even though he suffered from severe depression and had an irregular heartbeat. Although he had been imprisoned for two months before his questionable death, little was done internationally to raise awareness of his case and his condition. It was only after it was too late that the outrage and the criticism of the Iranian regime's conduct began.
Sadly, the international community has likewise overlooked the cases of other renowned Iranian journalists, such as Adnan Hassanpour who's been imprisoned since early 2007 and who faces a death sentence, also for baseless accusations of espionage. Or Kaveh Javanmard and Ali Farahbakhsh who have been held since late 2006 without ever being charged.
It is no surprise then that Freedom House's Freedom of the Press Index for 2009 ranks Iran 181 out of 195 countries and territories, given that more than 30 journalists were investigated, arrested, or imprisoned in 2008 alone. Despite these risks, Iranian journalists and bloggers continue to report when their colleagues are threatened and arrested on unfounded charges or tortured and forced to sign false accusations to avoid further abuse.
Iranian authorities will unfortunately manipulate cases like Saberi's, but they are being increasingly cautious in their approach following Zahra Kazemi's death. As the Saberi case ends on a high note, we shouldn't forget the hundreds of other journalists who bravely continue to exercise their right in expressing themselves despite the efforts of this brutal regime to stifle them. The international community must use Saberi's case as a springboard for supporting Iran's beleaguered media rather than allowing this high profile campaign to distract our attention from the underlying problem.
Nioucha Homayoonfar is a Program Officer at Freedom House.