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Christopher Dickey, journalist and free press campaigner, dies in Paris

July 17, 2020
Natasha Schmidt
8 min read
Christopher Dickey, Foreign Editor of the Daily Beast and a former Newsweek editor, died yesterday in Paris, France, aged 68
Christopher Dickey, Foreign Editor of the Daily Beast and a former Newsweek editor, died yesterday in Paris, France, aged 68
Dickey played a key role in the campaign for the release of IranWire's editor-in-chief and founder, Maziar Bahari, to be released from Evin Prison in Iran in 2009
Dickey played a key role in the campaign for the release of IranWire's editor-in-chief and founder, Maziar Bahari, to be released from Evin Prison in Iran in 2009
Bahari's imprisonment and the Newsweek-led campaign for his release was the basis for Jon Stewart's 2014 film Rosewater
Bahari's imprisonment and the Newsweek-led campaign for his release was the basis for Jon Stewart's 2014 film Rosewater

Christopher Dickey, Foreign Editor at the Daily Beast, passed away yesterday in Paris, France, at the age of 68, from sudden heart failure. He is survived by his wife Carol, his son James, three grandchildren and two siblings.

Dickey was previously an editor with Newsweek magazine and campaigned for IranWire’s editor-in-chief and founder, the Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, to be released from Even Prison in Iran after his 2009 detention. Bahari was Newsweek’s Tehran correspondent at the time.

Dickey also campaigned for the jailed Washington Post journalist, Jason Rezaian, during his own 2014-2016 detention.

Rezaian, an Iranian-American dual national, was arrested in July 2014 and was held in Evin Prison until his release on January 16, 2016. He faced a range of charges, including espionage. It was reported on September 23 that Rezaian had been forced to confess, though details of the confession were not released at the time.

For the most part, Rezaian’s family had chosen to be quiet on his case – presumably pursuing discreet diplomatic and political channels to bring about the reporter’s release – though they issued statements via the Washington Post and CNN.

Other campaigns to release other dual nationals, including Maziar Bahari, had been more public-facing. Bahari was jailed following the 2009 disputed presidential election. He had been covering the election for Newsweek, which then led the campaign to release him, a strategy that has been described as a “model for any news organization acting for journalists in trouble.”

Bahari was released in October 2009, four months after his incarceration. His story was the subject of the film Rosewater, television host and political satirist Jon Stewart’s directorial debut. It is based on Bahari’s memoir, Then They Came For Me.

But before Bahari’s release, Christopher Dickey helped show the role that the media, campaigners and family members can play in bringing about the release of jailed journalists in Iran.

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.

Bahari was eventually freed from Evin Prison on October 17, 2009, at which time he returned to his family in London.


Today IranWire is republishing a 2015 interview with Dickey and the director of English PEN, Jo Glanville, who in 2009 was part of Index on Censorship, on their efforts to secure Bahari’s release, on Rezaian’s case before his 2016 release, and on the wider issue of the harassment and persecution of journalists.


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.

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.

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.

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