Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian wins 2016 Tully Free Speech Award

Jason Rezaian, center, observes his award with Roy Gutterman and dean Lorraine Branham.
Jason Rezaian, center, observes his award with Roy Gutterman and dean Lorraine Branham. Photo by Bryan Cereijo

Jason Rezaian knows the consequences of being a journalist in a country without freedom of the press. After reporting in Iran for more than five years, he was arrested for espionage and spent 544 days in one of Iran’s most notorious prisons.

Rezaian spoke about his experiences as a foreign correspondent in Iran and his subsequent detention during the Tully Free Speech Award ceremony Monday afternoon at the Newhouse School. After a Q&A session with Tully Center for Free Speech director Roy Gutterman, Newhouse Dean Lorraine Branham presented Rezaian with the Tully Free Speech Award.

Before moving to Iran in 2008, Rezaian had little formal journalism training and could not speak Farsi, Iran’s official language. Although Rezaian grew up in Northern California, he said his family’s Iranian background inspired him to travel to the Middle East and write about life in Iran.

“My experiences with my family members didn’t match up with what I was seeing about Iran on the news,” Rezaian said.

When he arrived in Iran, Rezaian realized that few foreign journalists were covering Iranian news. As a correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, Monocle and the Washington Post, Rezaian wrote about Iranian politics, economics, sports and people’s daily lives. He was the Washington Post’s bureau chief in Tehran.

“I had this huge beat all to myself, and I could hunt and scavenge for any story I wanted,” Rezaian said.

Rezaian said there are only about six or seven foreign correspondents in the entire country. The government controls most Iranian media, and it is difficult for international journalists to access information beyond what is broadcast on the state-run news network.

As a dual American-Iranian citizen, Rezaian obtained permission from the Iranian government to write for international newspapers. The Iranian government closely monitored Rezaian’s movements, activities and communications. Still, Rezaian said he was able to write whatever he wanted and rarely had encounters with the Iranian government.

“I was told from time to time that they didn’t like certain parts of my stories,” Rezaian said. “There was intimidation, but no direct censorship.”

Then, in July 2014, Iranian security forces raided Rezaian’s home and arrested him and his wife, who is also a journalist. Rezaian said the arrest was a complete surprise, especially because the Iranian government had renewed his press credentials that same day.

“It was a strange and jarring process that was obviously highly orchestrated by the security forces,” he said.

Rezaian was charged with espionage and was placed in Iran’s Evin prison, which houses political dissidents. Because of the lack of nutritional food, Rezaian lost a large amount of weight and developed high blood pressure. He spent 49 days in solitary confinement and was given little information about his situation.

“Some days they would tell me I was going to be released and some days they told me I was going to be executed,” he said. After their July 2014 arrest, his wife was released in October.

In a closed-door trial in 2015, Rezaian was tried without witness testimony or real evidence. He met with an Iranian lawyer once before the trial, but was not allowed to speak to her in court. Iranian officials told him that he was convicted of espionage, but because he never saw any official documents, he said he is not sure of his real sentence.

“It was a pre-amateur process that I was dealing with, and all of it was completely legal under Iranian law,” he added.

During his imprisonment, Rezaian’s only link to the outside world was his wife and mother, who would visit him together for an hour once a week. He said they would tell him if there was any progress in their efforts to free him from prison.

“When they told me nothing was happening it really beat me down, but I tried to retain hope,” he said.

After the U.S. State Department negotiated a prisoner swap with Iran, Rezaian and three other American prisoners were released and flown to a military hospital in Germany in January 2016. His brother, wife, mother and employers at the Washington Post met with him at the hospital.

“When I got out it was heartwarming to see what had been going on for so long and with so much support,” Rezaian said.

Rezaian and his wife are now studying as fellows at the Harvard Nieman Foundation for Journalism. He said his ordeal in Iran has fortified his idea that journalists have an important role to play in global events and plans to continue writing for the Washington Post.

The Rezaian family filed a federal lawsuit in early October against the Iranian government, accusing it of hostage-taking, torture and terrorism.

The Tully Award for Free Speech is given annually to a journalist who has shown courage in facing threats to free speech. A panel of professional editors, journalism professors and Syracuse University students selected Rezaian for the award.

“I wish I could say we were in the golden age of press freedom, but there are still places where speech isn’t free,” he said.

Jordan Muller is a freshman newspaper and online journalism major at the Newhouse School.