Wednesday, May 13, 2009

What should we think about Roxana Saberi?

The news is good: Roxana Saberi has been released from her imprisonment, and it is hoped that she will be allowed to leave Iran very soon. We have written about her case here, and it's great news that she will be allowed to return to the United States and back to her work.

The news of her release, though, raises interesting questions about what the real story is and how we should think about it.

Presumably like most Americans, we thought of the charges against Roxana Saberi as being a pack of lies, a trumped-up excuse to imprison someone whose reporting was offensive to the Islamic totalitarians running Iran. A second line of analysis is that her imprisonment was the product of hardliners hoping to torpedo any rapprochement between the United States and Iran.

What we learn now, however, is that she has admitted to something. Specifically, she says that when she was working as a translator she made and retained in her possession "a confidential Iranian document on the U.S. war in Iraq". The precise nature of this document is unknown, but it appears to be undisputed that it was, and still is, a classified document.

We are used to totalitarian states seeking to criminalize journalism by charging journalists with espionage for what we would call ordinary reporting, such as photographing failing crops or other signs of weakness in their infrastructure. In this case, however, it seems pretty clear that the document Saberi copied was legitimately classified.

We had previously held pretty strongly to the line that Saberi's imprisonment was unjustified, and considered people who suggested that the espionage charge might be true to be not much more than trolls. So what do we do about the fact that Iran might have been justified in charging her?

Or, let's put it another way. Say we had a journalist from Iran in the United States, and she was doing some freelance translation work for the defense department, and she decided to keep a copy of one of the classified documents she had translated. Obviously it's not an exact comparison because we wouldn't be likely to hire a freelancer for this function, but stick with this a little bit.

What would happen to the Iranian journalist when we learned that she had kept classified American documents?

I suspect that the most charitable treatment she could hope for would be summary expulsion, but I think it is much more likely that she would be charged with espionage, and good luck to her to prove that she was just keeping it for her curiosity, and not to pass along to the government.

So if that's how we would handle an analogous situation, and we concede that Iran's interest in the confidentiality of its classified documents is as important to the Iranians as ours is to us, then what do we say about how Iran dealt with Roxana Saberi?

I truly don't know the answer, but it raises a question in my mind.

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