Freed Iranian-American journalist and Medill alum speaks at NU-Q

September 22, 2010

Northwestern University in Qatar cemented its role as a catalyst in the drive for media freedom on Sunday when it hosted Roxana Saberi, an Iranian-American journalist imprisoned in Iran for more than 100 days.

Saberi, who holds a master’s degree from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism in the U.S, spoke about her experience to an audience of more than 500 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Doha.

Described as “a woman and journalist of great courage”  by Richard Roth, senior associate dean of journalism at NU-Q, Saberi began her speech by asking the question: “Why should we care about human rights violations that are committed against other people, in other places?”

Alongside recounting the details of her interrogation  and imprisonment in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, Saberi expressed her  “love for Iran and the Iranian people,” calling on people to speak out  on behalf of Iranians, many of whom she said do not have the media platform that she is afforded.

“People can make a difference,”  she said, “and international attention on these issues is especially  important for raising awareness, both among Iranians and foreigners, and empowering prisoners.” Saberi went on to pay tribute to the prisoners who remain in Iran’s prisons, including journalists, human rights activists, political prisoners and, more recently, hikers.

A question and answer session followed Saberi’s lecture, during which  audience members asked about parallels with prison regimes in which the United States itself was involved, such as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, her positive experiences of the people and culture of Iran, and the question of freedom of the press in Iran.

Finally, Saberi thanked her supporters, including the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science, and Community Development, its Chairperson Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned, The Doha Centre for Media Freedom, and Northwestern University for advocating on her behalf while she was imprisoned.

Answering the question she had posed at the beginning of the lecture, Saberi concluded: “What happens in one place affects not only that one place,  but also the region and the world. While pain can spread very easily, goodness can overcome it”.

One of the guests, Dee Murray commented, “Individuals like [Roxana Saberi], who have access to the  media, can make a huge difference.”

Another guest, Hassan Al Jefairi, paid tribute to the Iranian people. A Qatari writer and  activist, Al Jefairi expressed solidarity with Saberi, criticizing what  he described as the Iranian regime’s use of religion to gain power and  money.

Haya Al-Mannai, a first-year journalism student at NU-Q, commented, “I really enjoyed the lecture. It showed a different side to  Iran and to youth in Iran, especially how life was like for women there.  I found it interesting (and risky) to see how young Iranians formed  underground music bands to express their feelings through art, and I liked the TV report Roxana did which showed how Iranian women were  campaigning for better rights on International Women’s day.”

Saberi was arrested in January 2009 while working on a book about the people  and issues in Iran. She was convicted in a half-hour trial, which  resulted in an 8-year prison sentence. Before being freed on appeal,  Saberi was held in Evin Prison, initially in solitary confinement, from Jan. 31 until May 11, 2009, during which time her ordeal attracted international attention, including a protest from the Doha Centre for Media Freedom.

The Saberi lecture was held as part of the University’s inaugural Journalism Week, which seeks to bring the world of journalism and free press to the wider Doha community. The first in a series of lectures for the new academic year, it was billed as an opportunity for the public to gain insight into Iranian society and the  events unfolding there today.

The event supports Northwestern University in Qatar’s aim of stimulating public discussion on  media-related issues. It is an extension of the university’s work on campus, which seeks to bring about academic enrichment in the student  body through exposure to a diverse set of scholars and media  professionals.

As part of her visit to Northwestern University’s  Qatar campus, Saberi also spoke to students about the risks and the responsibilities of journalism, and signed copies of her book, “Between  Two Worlds,” which chronicles her time in Iran. She concluded her visit with a public book signing at Virgin Megastore in the Villaggio mall on Monday, Sept. 20.