Journalist Shane Bauer made his friend Shon Meckfessel promise he wouldn’t let him work during their vacation in the Kurdistan mountains in northern Iraq last summer. Bauer, 27, and his partner Sarah Shourd, 31, had been living in Damascus for almost a year. Bauer was studying language and reporting for the Nation, Mother Jones and other outlets. Shourd was reporting, blogging and teaching English. Their friend Josh Fattal, 27, had just arrived in the Middle East as part of a teaching fellowship with a Boston-based honors comparative global studies program, for which he had already been based in China, South Africa and India. Meckfessel was studying Arabic and working on his dissertation on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The four decided to take a 10-day trip as a break from the emotional and intellectual intensity of their work.
Almost exactly a year later, Bauer, Shourd and Fattal are still in Iran’s infamous Evin prison and Meckfessel — who would be there too if it weren’t for a fortuitous head cold — spends most of his time working for their release. He hopes a Web site (www.freeourfriends.eu) he recently launched will help show the public in the U.S. and internationally that his friends are accomplished journalists and dedicated solidarity activists, not just the “hapless hikers” much media coverage has made them out to be. And he hopes this message will ultimately help obtain their release.
Contrary to the Iranian government’s contention that they were spying, Meckfessel says he and his friends had no intention of gathering information or doing anything more rigorous than enjoying the scenery and local culture in Kurdistan. But even so, he sees their ordeal as underscoring the important and growing role of independent, open-minded freelance journalists in today’s changing media landscape. It was their dedication to amplifying the voices of Iraqi refugees, Yemeni women, Palestinian youth and others that brought them to the Middle East; and the type of solidarity and media work they were doing is crucial to creating bridges between cultures alienated by war and foreign policy, Meckfessel contends. He wants the world to see his friends’ plight in this context and push harder for their release.
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Committee to Protect Journalists executive director Joel Simon, who wrote to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad demanding the three be released, said in a statement he is “gravely concerned that the hikers are being used as political pawns in a frightening game of nuclear diplomacy.” He noted that while this is not a “traditional press freedom case” since the three were not reporting when captured, they all were practicing journalism and photography in the Middle East. He called Bauer an “accomplished journalist with some prominent bylines.”
“We wanted to make very clear he was a journalist, in case the Iranians in their paranoid way really did believe they were spies,” Simon said.
The four had arrived in the city of Suluimania in Kurdistan on July 29, and asked locals about the best way to enjoy the surrounding mountains. The region has been relatively safe during the Iraq war, and in the past few years aggressively promoted as a tourist destination by government officials. People recommended they go to a waterfall in a place known as Ahmed Awa. The next day Bauer, Shourd and Fattal set out to hike there. Meckfessel, fighting a cold, stayed behind and planned to join them the next day. That evening and the next morning he talked to Bauer by cell phone, and heard they were having a great time. He was on the bus to meet them when he got a terse, nervous call from Bauer telling him they were being detained…in Iran. Meckfessel was shocked, as they had no idea the trail was near the Iranian border, and none of the locals had even mentioned it was anywhere near Iran.
Now Meckfessel, author of an indie sociopolitical travelogue about the Balkans, has devoted his life to working for the release of his friends and educating the public about who they actually are and the work that brought them to the Middle East. He is currently on a 30-city grassroots tour of Europe speaking about his friends’ journalistic and solidarity work and trying to bolster an international movement for their release. The new Web site showcases their work and lives and features statements from Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky, the parents of slain activist Rachel Corrie and others.
He hopes the tour and Web site will counter images of his friends — all University of California at Berkeley graduates — as “clueless REI types” who were oblivious to the political minefield they’d stumbled into.
Online comments on news stories have indeed shown much public confusion and condemnation. A June 2010 comment on a news story in Montgomery, Pa. said, “Perhaps these hikers should have picked another mountain (Colorado or Utah have some good ones) to hike. Being within pissing distance from Iranian border is not wise regardless of what one says they were doing there. One has to be paid or be out of their minds to pull a stunt like they did. This puts US National interest in trouble and puts a spark in the powder keg of middle east.”
Meckfessel thinks it’s important for the public — and the Iranian government — to appreciate the in-depth, empathetic but professional, nuanced journalism that brought Bauer and Shourd to the Middle East.
Though news stories have periodically called them “freelance journalists,” Meckfessel and other media colleagues say such passing references hardly do justice to the work Bauer did for the Nation, Mother Jones, New American Media, Al Jazeera and other high-profile outlets. Bauer exposed secretive Special Operations forces in Iraq and corruption in funding the Iraqi Awakening Councils, among other investigative stories. Shourd wrote about gender roles in Yemen, everyday life in Ethiopia, the killings of women in Juarez, Mexico and the resistance in Chiapas.
Esther Kaplan, director of the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund, describes Bauer as “extremely fearless,” adding that his fluency in Arabic allows him to report in ways few other Americans can. “He’s willing to be a truly unembedded reporter,” she said. “He’s chased down incredible stories in Iraq.”
In late May the mothers of the three were allowed to visit them in Evin prison, meeting before reporters and a table piled with fruit and juices. They talked of spending days reading and watching TV, singing and telling stories to keep each other’s spirits up. Bauer and Shourd got engaged while in prison, Bauer fashioning rings out of string from his shirt. Bauer and Fattal share a cell while Shourd is alone 23 hours a day, seeing the others during two daily half-hour stints in the prison yard. They are reportedly in decent physical health and treated civilly in the prison infamous for torture and repression. Still, Meckfessel and other friends worry about their mental and emotional health as the detention drags on.
“Sarah pretty much memorized the L-M volume of some old encyclopedia,” said Meckfessel. “They all understand how staying active is the key to surviving, so they do all that, physical exercise too. It’s kind of odd to see my somewhat nerdy friends so ripped, bulging biceps and all! That’s not to say they’re healthy, physically or mentally, just that they’re trying.”
He is most worried about Shourd.
“She was her strong, beaming self for much of the press conference during the mothers’ visit in May, but also this Sarah I’ve never seen kept appearing at other moments, gaunt, terribly sad, almost skeletal,” he said. “This is what Iran is doing to someone who a year ago was tutoring Iraqi refugees and writing on Gaza.”
The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund commissioned two reporters to look into the circumstances surrounding the detention. They found Kurdish witnesses who say the three were not even in Iran when they were arrested. The witnesses, who had followed the hikers out of curiosity, said they were still in Iraq when soldiers with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards had motioned for them to approach and fired a shot in the air when the three friends hesitated. The Iranian soldiers ultimately walked into Iraq to arrest the three, the witnesses said. The Investigative Fund also discovered that the regional Revolutionary Guards intelligence commander who would have orchestrated the detention now faces execution on charges of murder, kidnapping and smuggling in relation to a massive border-land criminal enterprise. While Iranian officials have accused the three Americans of links to U.S. and Israeli intelligence, local witnesses and Iran experts interviewed by the Investigative Fund indicate Revolutionary Guards likely kidnapped them in Iraq for the express purpose of obtaining hostages.
“We hope there’s a willingness to look this case in the face,” said Kaplan. “The accusations about espionage are patently ridiculous. We hope the Iranian officials will do the right thing and let them go.”
Meckfessel says that even though his friends were taking a break from reporting when they were arrested, their situation should be seen in the context of the efforts and risks journalists take to tell independent stories from misunderstood, far-flung parts of the world. As fewer mainstream media outlets have the resources to allow reporters to do in-depth on-the-ground reporting in places like Iraqi refugee camps or Palestinian occupied territory, and as these reporters are often embedded with U.S. troops or otherwise constrained by political situations, the work of independent freelancers willing to travel the world at their own risk and on their own dime has become ever more important.
“I think their situation is a direct result of the New Journalism,” Meckfessel said. “News outlets don’t hire investigative journalists anymore, so if you want to do it, usually for ethical reasons, you take the risk on your own back. Then, if something happens to you, you’re on your own.”
Simon noted that journalists with major media outlets have garnered intense institutional support when captured or attacked, even if they are on vacation or freelance assignments at the time. Not so for independent freelance reporters, making informal networks of editors and organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists crucial, he said.
Simon was heavily involved in negotiations to free Iranian American freelance reporter Roxana Saberi, who was sentenced to eight years in prison in Iran in 2009 on charges of reporting without a credential. She was released after several months.
“That was definitely a case where international concern made a huge difference,” said Simon. “She was sympathetic because she was definitely there reporting and had been for a while, she was well-known. This case is more complicated. The general public wants an explanation of what they were doing hiking in Iraq.”
Dahr Jamail, author of Beyond the Green Zone, notes that Bauer was one of very few independent journalists working in Iraq. “He opposed the U.S. occupation of Iraq and was intent on using his pen to show the effects of the occupation to the world, in hopes of helping the Iraqi people,” wrote Jamail in a letter featured on the freeourfriends Web site.
“Iran has ample reason for caution and suspicion with regard to the actions and plans of Washington, but these young people represent a segment of the U.S. population that is critical of these policies, and often actively opposed to them,” added Noam Chomsky. “Hence their detention is particularly distressing to all of us who are dedicated to shifting U.S. policy to one of mutual respect rather than domination.”
Meckfessel hopes his friends’ plight doesn’t discourage other independent Western journalists, activists or even regular tourists from traveling to and living in the Middle East and other locales never visited by most Americans — to help tell the stories that are so often absent from the mainstream American debate.
“All four of us feel obliged by the ignorance of most Americans about the Middle East and wider world,” said Meckfessel, “to go out there and gain first-hand experience that people back home might be more willing to listen to because of our common cultural background.”