Rosewater tells the story of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, jailed in Iran in 2009 during the contested presidential election, and will open in cinemas across the United States and Canada on November 14. The film, which received a standing ovation in Telluride and Toronto film festivals, also draws attention to the power of the media in raising international awareness and campaigning for real change.
Directed by television host and political satirist Jon Stewart, Rosewater begins with the arrest of Bahari, a reporter for Newsweek magazine played by Gael Garcia Bernal, and then flashes back to look at the events that led to his arrest and his subsequent 118-day detention at Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. The story, based on Bahari’s memoir And Then They Came For Me, is a powerful, personal account of the Green Revolution, the dangers journalists face in Iran, and the vital role they play in getting information out to the wider world.
When Bahari was arrested on June 21, 2009, his family, friends and colleagues took immediate action, launching a high-profile campaign that gained the support of some of the world’s most prominent journalists, writers and editors, from Ted Koppel and Christiane Amanpour to Umberto Eco and Orhan Pamuk. Throughout the campaign, Newsweek’s editors, including Christopher Dickey, appealed to everyone they could think of to bring about Bahari’s release. If a diplomat was talking at the G8, they insisted Bahari’s case was raised; if an ambassador had contacts with Iranian officials, they were approached to see what they could do to apply pressure on the government; if a journalist interviewed the State Department, Newsweek urged their colleague to ask about Bahari. They published articles, exchanged emails, made sure the world did not forget about their jailed colleague. And, on October 20 2009, Maziar Bahari was released.
IranWire spoke to Christopher Dickey and Jo Glanville, who, then editor of Index on Censorship magazine, was part of the team of journalists who initiated a remarkable campaign and worked to bring international attention to Bahari’s case. How did the campaign, and Bahari’s release, come about?
Christopher Dickey: I had been working with Maziar all through his coverage of the election campaign and the election. And we’d tried to be careful. I think we had some pretty good pieces in Newsweek; some of them had Maziar’s name on them and some of them didn’t, to protect him. We thought that we’d been through the tough stuff. I’m not sure that I was aware that he had done the footage that he had for ITV. I was in Normandy working on a travel story. I had just visited a cathedral in Bayeux, and was coming out and I get this phone call from Nisid Hajari [Newsweek’s foreign editor at the time], saying that Maziar had been arrested. And then the question was: What do we do?
They hired a lawyer; they asked the State Department for advice. And a lot of the advice was: “Don’t rock the boat, keep quiet, this can be handled quietly.” I felt strongly from the beginning that that was a mistake. I think it’s important to say it was a mistake because this was a political act. He was being made a political prisoner by a state organization that ought to be susceptible to pressure.
Jo Glanville: I felt that this was quite a remarkable campaign, and that it was truly international, with the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, everyone coming together. But what made this campaign so remarkable was Newsweek. Every time I spoke to Nisid on the phone, he said, “Oh, I’m in a car, I’m on my way to the UN or I’m on my way to the ambassador.” It was phenomenal. Obviously all the human rights organizations were very important, getting behind Newsweek, and we organized an extraordinary petition. We knew we had to get writers to sign who were from countries that were allies and friends to Iran. So it was a truly global petition for freedom of expression. But there’s no doubt in my mind that if it hadn’t been for Newsweek’s phenomenal hard work and advocacy for Maziar, he wouldn’t have come out. And as we all know, that famous moment when he knew for the first time that people were working for him, when the jailers came in and called him “Mr Hillary Clinton," Maziar knew then the level at which people were campaigning for him. I think the phenomenal work that Newsweek did, and the backing from human rights groups, is a model that one would hope other newspapers would take on.
Christopher Dickey: Maziar actually got the footage of a guy being shot as he tried to climb into the Basij headquarters very early on in the protests. The protests hadn’t even really developed into a full-blown uprising when Maziar got into trouble and was picked up. I think the main thing that we felt —and that’s why I say it’s important to realize that this was a political act by a state actor — is that if Maziar had been abducted by a terrorist group, that might have been a slightly more ambiguous situation. But this was a state actor, a member of the United Nations, a country that wanted to be taken seriously. So you knew you had some kind of leverage. You had leverage through governments.
One of the big problems was to get governments to act. We made sure nobody was off the hook. It wasn’t just making sure the Iranians were not off the hook. It was making sure that every possible player was engaged and active. And that’s where Paola [Maziar’s wife] became so important. We could have our lawyer call up the Canadian government, we could go to members of Congress, we could go to the State Department, we could do all that. And yet all those people sort of know how to deal with each other. Paola —they didn’t know how to deal with her. There’s this beautiful woman, who’s pregnant, whose pregnancy is troubled, whose child may be born with its father in jail, and that was something that nobody wanted headlines about. And anytime anybody backed off, they got headlines about it. We knew the Italians felt they had great relations with the Iranians, and Berlusconi personally felt he had great relations with the Iranian leadership. In fact, he had told me that in an interview not too long before. So I thought: how do we move Berlusconi? Well, Paola’s half Italian. So we played that up: here’s this Italian mother, pregnant, husband in jail, all unfair. When’s Italy going to do something? And once we had an article in La Repubblica, and in other places, then that started to make things move with the Italians. Eventually, we created a situation where Ahmadinejad couldn’t go anywhere — he couldn't go to the UN, he couldn’t receive foreign dignitaries, without Maziar Bahari being brought up. Farid Zakaria interviewed Hillary Clinton and he said: “What are you going to do about Maziar Bahari?” We were asking everybody; we were in everybody’s face all the time for three months, until Maziar got out. It was about as concerted a campaign as you could possibly have.
Jo Glanville: The release of the film is obviously a good opportunity to look at this as a model. There is no way that every publication is going to go to quite the same lengths as Newsweek, but if it was used as a model for other publications to consider, that would be just an incredibly useful thing.
Christopher Dickey: Would this work for the hostages being held by ISIS right now? I think no. But the real question is: What the hell is being done for [jailed journalist] Jason Rezaian right now? Why are we not seeing his name every time we turn on the TV? Why is there not at least one line in every article about the nuclear negotiations, which began yesterday? He’s way down the priority list. Maybe they’ll talk to the Iranians on the sidelines about ISIS. But are they going to talk about Jason?
Jo Glanville: As you say, Chris, Maziar was held by a state, therefore there was a level of government negotiations that could be done. Although one can think of former journalists and prisoners in Evin Prison who did not come out alive.
Obviously we’re seeing this debate again; we’re seeing the whole subject of what to do about hostages being discussed. And I think what maybe Jason is suffering from is this idea that you keep shtum, and you let them do it behind the scenes. But obviously what we know from Maziar’s case and from other cases is that that is the last thing you should be doing.
Christopher Dickey: I’ve written a lot over the years about the hostage negotiations when the US embassy was taken over, and as I studied that really closely, it became obvious to me that one of the key problems in dealing with Iran is that you’re constantly in a quandary about who is in charge. Who was actually holding the hostages in 1979? Who did you talk to? Who was responsible? And every time you thought you had somebody who was responsible, you were told, “no, that’s above my pay grade; no, I can’t do it; oh, there’s been internal dissent; there’s in-fighting; there’s this; there’s that”. For Maziar, our attitude was basically: we don’t give a shit about all of that. We will just put pressure on everybody. Somebody should let this man out of prison. And that’s how we kept at it — again, and again, and again. And somebody let him out of prison in the end.
Maziar Bahari is the founder of IranWire.