The Fourth Estate, part four

On Saturday, Apr. 18, the world learned of a farce called justice in Iran: the sentencing of Roxana Saberi, a journalist who has citizenship in both the U.S. and Iran, to eight years in Evin Prison for espionage.

Saberi’s press credentials were revoked by the Iranian government in 2006. However, the freelance journalist continued filing stories with the BBC and NPR. The Iranian government ignored this infraction until Jan. 2009, when she was arrested. Reports concerning the initial charge are conflicting.

Saberi reportedly told her father in phone call that she was arrested after purchasing a bottle of wine. Iran’s state news service reported the initial charge was for working as a journalist without proper press credentials. In early April, Saberi’s charges were suddenly expanded to spying for Washington.

Her one-day trial was conducted in secret and no evidence has been presented so far. Reza Saberi, the imprisoned journalist’s father, told NPR his daughter had been tricked — or coerced, to use an American legal term—into making incriminating statements. She was told she would be released if she confessed. Roxana Saberi is reported to have later withdrawn her confession, but that had no apparent effect on her case.

President Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton have both called for Saberi’s immediate release, professing that she is not an American spy. Sadly, given the Bush administration’s lack of respect for due process concerning so-called “enemy combatants” imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, our new president’s pleas lack merit.

I suspect this crisis is only a preview of international relations to come that will find the U.S. on shaky moral ground. Bush’s legacy will be one of superiority and disrespect for the rule of law. It’s people like Saberi who will suffer the damage to this country’s standing abroad.

Saberi has been cast as an innocent pawn, larger political theatrics being played out here. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad urged prosecutors in the case to ensure Saberi a chance to defend herself. Ahmadinejad has also recently made optimistic statements about normalizing diplomatic relations with the U.S. and begin negotiations with President Obama concerning his country’s nuclear program.

Iran’s judiciary, however, represents a more “hard-line,” anti-Western philosophy, according to The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib. He and several other columnists believe Iran’s judiciary is trying to use Saberi’s conviction to manufacture a crisis that will prevent Washington and Tehran from breaking a 30 year mutual silent treatment.

Political jockeying and international rights reputations aside, journalists, who simply and nobly strive to proliferate the truth, are too often victims of the stories they cover. The International News Safety Institute reports that 109 journalists were killed in the line of duty in 2008, and 24 more have died this year.

“Killing the Messenger,” the title of the INSI’s report detailing the increased number of journalist casualties in recent years, couldn’t have a better title. It illustrates how reprehensible are those who would murder, or otherwise silence, messengers of truth.

Saberi’s case is a potential travesty that can be avoided. Human beings should not be bargaining chips in a sordid international game of seven-card stud.

Let Saberi go, or at the very least, present the body (habeas corpus), which requires more than a one-day show trial complete with fickle charges and secrecy.

If she is truly guilty of espionage, wouldn’t her case be a great opportunity to show the superiority of Iran’s national security to the rest of the world? If she’s innocent, wouldn’t freeing her show that Iran’s respect for the law outshines even our own?

I plead with Iran, and I hope others will join me: Don’t let Saberi, whose health has become precarious, according to her father, deteriorate inside the walls of Evin Prison. President Obama, make a deal, and release some of the prisoners the US has been holding for years without trial.

In the pursuit of stories, journalists need to be willing to place themselves in harm’s way. If they don’t, critical international stories will go unreported, allowing those who would commit atrocities to act with impunity and in secrecy.

The population served by dedicated journalists, like Saberi, owes them protection when the ground is suddenly and unjustly swept away. Our freedom is dependent on the information provided by professionals like her.

We are not separate; we are the same. And presently, we are imprisoned.