By Jessi Rucker
Roxana Saberi knew she was being watched in Iran. As an Iranian-American and a well-known journalist, she knew she was a prime target. The book she was working on, focusing on current events and culture in the Middle East, posed no threat to the regime.
They arrested her anyway.
She was blindfolded and transported to Evin House of Detention in northern Tehran, the most feared prison in Iran. There she was interrogated and accused of being a spy. Her accusers wanted a confession. To what, Saberi wasn’t even sure. So she gave them one.
“I was so ashamed of myself later that day, because there were so many other strong prisoners in this detention center that didn’t give in,” Saberi told the Mercy College community on Faculty Seminar Day. “I knew if I recanted there would be consequences. I didn’t care. I knew I had to.”
In January of 2009, Saberi was held prisoner for 100 days. She tells the story of her incarceration in her new book, Between Two Worlds, My Life and Captivity in Iran, published by Harper Collins this past March.
As the regime kept questioning her, they did seem satisfied of her answer as to why she kept interviewing Iranian citizens and was constantly writing notes and typing on her computer.
“They could not comprehend the fact that I was writing a book,” she recalled.
Roxana Saberi grew up in North Dakota where she excelled at playing piano and soccer. She graduated from Concordia College in Minnesota with a degree in Communication and French. She earned a Master’s Degree in Broadcast Journalism from Northwestern University, and then traveled to Cambridge to earn her second graduate degree in International Relations.
She also was named Miss North Dakota in 1997 and was a top-ten finalist at the Miss America pageant. Roxana was prestigiously named the Miss America Scholar award winner that same year. If that was not enough, she even played collegiate soccer while attending Cambridge.
While working for Feature Story News in 2003, Roxana moved back to Iran and began covering stories for NPR and Fox. She was warned and followed, and eventually arrested and charged with espionage and a sentence of eight years. She bonded the women in the prison and survived the mental anguish of Evin Prison. She went on a hunger strike which gained national media attention, which helped lead to an Iranian court reducing her charges and suspending her sentence. She returned to America and has not yet since returned to Iran. The friends she made in Evin prison remain confined there, yet she continues to work to have them released.
According to Reporters without Borders, 25 journalists have been murdered in 2010 for job-related reporting. Nearly 160 have been imprisoned this year, with Iran have the third most count of arrests at 27. The men and women that take upon that challenge to report about corruption, crime and politics from other countries often do so with risk to their lives.
IMPACT: Is Roxana your birth given name?
SABERI: Yes, it is Persian. It actually means sunset or sunrise.
IMPACT: After the doors that winning Miss America opened up for you, why did you decide to move to Iran and write a book?
SABERI: I got into journalism because I had the desire to serve the community in some way. I thought it would be a great way to learn and teach people about Iran and it would be important for the whole world. And of course because I am half Iranian, it was easier for me to report with my Iranian passport then it would have been for other American journalists.
IMPACT: What was this initial book planned to be about?
SABERI: I was interviewing a lot of different people around Iran to tell the stories not shown in the headlines. Iran is very diverse with many different ethnicities but they are still very united.
IMPACT: When you first got to Iran in 2003 did you know that the government would be watching you?
SABERI: Yes, it was something I always new. Any American journalist they monitor. I figured they were reading my emails and watching me, but I didn’t know to what extent.
IMPACT: What is your relationship with Iran now?
SABERI: I love Iran. I lived there for seven years and I love the people and I love the country. I had a real life there.
IMPACT: Are you allowed back in Iran? Would you ever go back?
SABERI: Not now. It is pretty crazy over there right now- since the presidential election there is a lot of unrest. If I did go back I might immediately be arrested or my passport would surely be taken and I wouldn’t be able to leave the country.
IMPACT: Are you scared for your safety now?
SABERI: Before I was released, one of the government agents told me that if I were to talk about our arrangements he would personally sign my death warrant. Another interrogator told me he could send me to Afghanistan and make it look like I was in a car accident. Sometimes I have nightmares or I feel the need to look over my shoulder, but overall speaking out helps me, and if I didn’t tell my story it would almost seem like they won.
IMPACT: Would you report in a country again that has a similar government with a distaste for Americans, like Iran?
SABERI: I would have to know about the specific conditions.
IMPACT: What advice would you give to other journalists that are reporting in places than do not share the free press we have in this country?
SABERI: Have a code word or phrase to let your loved ones know if you’re in trouble. I tried to hint to my father on the phone that I was in trouble when my capturers let me call him but it didn’t work because we had never discussed it. It is also imperative to have the phone number of a courageous lawyer that will really fight for you in case you are unfairly imprisoned. Also, some employers offer hostage-training courses that teach you what is best to do if you are captured.
IMPACT: I know you are fighting for others unfairly imprisoned in Iran. Can you tell me about that?
SABERI: I had two cellmates that were two of the seven detained leaders of the Baha’i Faith, largest non-Muslim minority group. (Baha’i members are ostracized in Iran and are often subjected to unfair arrests, torture and executions. In May of 2008, the seven leaders were swept out of their homes in similar style of Roxana’s arrest. According to members of the Baha’i Faith, the arrests were only for religious reasons but the Irani government charges include espionage, propaganda activities and corruption on Earth.) Their sentence is 10 years. I am trying to draw attention to their cases. The more media attention the better chance they have of being let free. When we, as journalists, make the world more aware it can really empower people. I think it is especially motivating for the imprisoned people to know that people know their story and believe it’s wrong.
IMPACT: What changes in Iran do you expect or hope to see in your lifetime?
SABERI: I would like to see a democratic government in Iran that respects basic human rights. I also would like the release of political prisoners that were standing up for these human rights. It would be nice for Iran to use the country’s potential to progress and make advancements to contribute globally.
IMPACT: What is the biggest misconception Americans have about Iran?
SABERI: Iranians actually want better relationships with the rest of the world. Especially Americans. There was a poll taken not too long ago, and a vast majority of Iranians wanted a better relationship with Americans and think that a democratic government is needed in their country.
IMPACT: I know you have a bachelor’s and two masters degrees? Is education something you think is important?
SABERI: Yes, definitely. It’s something no one can take from you. Travel, books and education are something you can’t really put a price on. Life is really all about learning.
IMPACT: What message do you want people to take away from your book?
SABERI: There are a few. One is to understand the power of an individual speaking out. It is important to give a voice to issues like this. Also my personal journey is definitely something to learn from. It shows that the challenges we encounter can definitely be made into opportunities to grow and set examples to others.
• 59 journalist lost their lives reporting so far this year
• 110 journalists lost their lives reporting in 2009
• In November of 2009, 34 journalists were killed in Maguindanao, Philippines in an attack on a Mayor attempting to file for presidential candidacy. An opposing political group warned the Mayor that he and the press would be killed if he pursued to register to run for President.
• In September, two photographers were shot in Mexico, one killed. The gunmen are assumed to be part of a criminal organization.
• Since 1993, there has been over three hundred deaths or dissapearence of journalists for the work they were doing. In only one case someone was prosecuted.
• February 2006, Wu Xianghu, a reporter in China was killed beaten by a traffic policeman for printing an article that embarrassed him. He died of liver and kidney failure after months in the hospital.
• January 2007, Lan Chengzhang, of China was reporting on an illegal coal mine when he was beaten to death by a group of men at the mine.
• In September of 2010 Riad al-Sary, an anchor of a religious television program in Iraq, was killed gunfire by an unidentified man in Baghdad. He promoted reconciliation between Shiites and Sunnis, a sensitive topic in Iraq.