Iran: Roxana Saberi and the politics of understanding

American-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi was held in detention in an Iranian prison for nearly three months under charges of spying for the United States. She was sentenced to eight years in prison by Iran's Revolutionary Court, but on May 10th an appeals court suspended the sentence and she has recently returned home to the U.S.

Her story provides a dramatic example of the potential consequences of reporting in a society weary of a U.S. perspective, and perhaps, of the consequences of our own misunderstanding of, and mis-reporting on, Iran.


Pulitzer Center grantee Iason Athanasiadis provides a unique portrait of Roxana and the realities of reporting in Iran in a story for the latest Nieman Reports, written during the time Saberi was in Tehran's Evin Prison. In "Understanding Iran: Reporters Who Do Are Exiled, Pressured or Jailed" Iason takes us from Roxana's personal story as a reporter in Iran to the broader politics of reporting there:

"By summer 2007, Roxana, working without a press permit, was one of a very few journalists still surveying the scene. The night before I left Iran in 2007, an Iranian political analyst for a foreign embassy told me that the Iranian government abhors foreign journalists, who are seen as proffering "social intelligence" about their host country. Unlike truly locked-away lands such as North Korea, Iran is an open society proud of its contribution to world civilization. But the current security-minded regime wants to minimize the outflow of information." Read full story.

The consequences of misunderstanding in this case are painfully ironic since Roxana was actually the kind of reporter who presented a balanced perspective on Iran to the American public precisely because she could provide insight into both American and Iranian society. It's true that the U.S. media as a whole has too often failed to portray Iran in an objective manner. But authorities in Iran have made objective reporting there so difficult that it would take extreme risks to make it happen -- as Roxana's story illustrates -- and the silencing and punishment of a voice like hers only adds fuel to the fire of those who want to demonize and over-simplify Iran.

Iason was a 2008 Nieman Fellow and a freelance journalist in Iran between 2004 and 2007. His article is featured in the Summer 2009 issue of Nieman Reports, which provides a series of reports on the realities of reporting on, and from, Iran. Editor Melissa Ludtke introduces the issue:

"At a time when Iran's policies, politics, and power draw global attention, journalists write in Nieman Reports about the challenges they and bloggers confront in gathering and distributing news and information about this nation and its people. Iranians - some living in exile, some who've been imprisoned, others working in Iran - share firsthand accounts of their experiences, as do Western reporters and editors, offering a rare blend of insights on journalists' lives and work in Iran." Read full story

Currently Iason is reporting from Turkey on a grant from the Pulitzer Center. His project "A Turkish Dilemma" explores the internal, and external, tensions facing this rising power. Iason also reported on the recent upheaval in Greece unleashed by the December 2008 riots for the Pulitzer Center.