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Former Iranian Captive Jason Rezaian Speaks at COM

Accepts Hugo Shong Reporting on Asia Award in person

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Last December, Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian was awarded the Hugo Shong Reporting on Asia Award by the College of Communication. But Rezaian was nearly 6,000 miles away, imprisoned in an Iranian jail, where he’d been held for more than 500 days. His brother, Ali Rezaian, accepted the award on his behalf, and COM announced that when the Post journalist was freed, there would be another ceremony so he could receive the award in person.

That ceremony was held on Tuesday and was moderated by Thomas Fiedler (COM’71), dean of COM. Rezaian was accompanied by his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, who was arrested alongside him, and by his brother. Both Rezaians and Salehi spoke during the event, and the students, faculty, and staff attending were able to ask questions at the end.

Finally freed on January 16, Rezaian was one of five Americans released in a prisoner swap between the United States and Iran. At that point, he had been detained for 545 days, longer than any previous Western journalist in Iran. Matthew Trevithick (CGS’06, CAS’08), who had been imprisoned for 41 days, was also among the five let go.

“I spent so many years trying to illuminate Iran, a country that in the United States is often referred to as misunderstood or not understandable,” Rezaian said when asked if he would continue working as a journalist. “I tried to make it understandable for American readership. I would be doing readers and myself a big disservice if I didn’t finish the loop on that.”

The Hugo Shong Reporting on Asia Award is given to an individual who has displayed the highest standards of international journalism on matters of importance specific to Asia and is funded by BU trustee Hugo Shong (COM’87), executive vice president of the International Data Group, who was unable to attend Tuesday’s event. This is the sixth time the award has been given since it was established in 2005.

Rezaian, who at the time of his arrest was the Washington Post’s Tehran bureau chief, began his talk by telling the audience how he had come to cover Iran. His father was born there, he said, and thus he and his brother were raised as dual Iranian-American citizens. He moved to Iran in 2009 and covered the contested presidential election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and afterward wrote for such news organizations as Slate, Time, and Bloomberg, before joining the Post in 2012. “It was the golden age of American coverage in Iran,” Rezaian said. “We were doing stories on Iran that humanized the country.”

Rezaian’s reporting, Fiedler told the crowd, often gave readers a fuller understanding of what everyday life is like for Iranian citizens—his last story before being imprisoned was about the growing popularity of baseball in the country.

In July 2014, he and Salehi, an Iranian citizen by birth, were arrested at their Tehran home, charged with espionage, and imprisoned. Salehi was released after 72 days, but her husband was tried in May 2015 and convicted in October on charges that were never made public; the sentence for his unspecified crimes was never made clear. The Post, his family, and the international journalism community condemned his imprisonment, contending that the charges were fabricated and that his continued detention violated international law. At times, he was held in solitary confinement. His wife and his mother were allowed to visit a few times a week.

Asked how he coped on a day-to-day basis while in prison, not knowing what the next day would bring, he said he did the best he could. “You don’t really cope in solitary,” he said. “The whole idea of solitary is to disjoint you from reality, as far as I can tell. The best that I could do in solitary was walk back and forth, and we’re talking about a cell that was nine feet deep by four and a half feet wide.”

After he was released from solitary confinement, he was put in a cell with two other men. The trio, he said, did their best to find “human moments—laugh at things, talk about each other’s families, our hopes and aspirations, talk about places we had visited and hoped to visit, good movies we had seen, good meals we had had. I would look up in the sky, and I would realize that I was still on the same Earth. I was less than two miles away from my house.”

Just before the COM event, Harvard University announced that Rezaian had been named a 2017 Nieman Fellow, one of the country’s most respected journalism fellowships. He said that during his yearlong appointment, he plans to study what the new arc of US-Iranian relations means for American foreign policy in the Middle East and to examine the possibilities and the challenges of the recent diplomatic opening between the two countries.

As time goes on, more and more journalists are being pulled out of Iran for safety reasons, Rezaian said. Currently, news organizations with reporters on the ground there include the Associated Press, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times.

“So many folks came through Tehran, whether it was TV, newspapers, radio…a big part of me wants that to never stop, because it’s necessary,” he said. “But there are so many risks at play, and we are living examples of that. I think it would be a real shame if people stopped covering Iran from Iran, but at the same time, if you go into this type of work, there are very real risks to your person.”

2 Comments
Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

2 Comments on Former Iranian Captive Jason Rezaian Speaks at COM

  • gwen puza on 04.28.2016 at 11:01 am

    For those of us who are online only, not in Boston, I wonder if this will be recorded for us to view.
    I watched the movie Rosewater last night – a riveting account of another journalist held in prison in Iran.

  • Gerald Collins on 05.03.2016 at 2:29 pm

    He was interviewed by Anthony Bourdain CNN program about Iran ,the food and people.
    Both him and his wife gave a very good impression about Iran, especially the young people. But soon after he was put in jail. Go figure.

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