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As Coronavirus Spreads, No Journalist Should be Sidelined in Prison

Yeganeh Rezaian is Advocacy Associate at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
The international community will commemorate World Press Freedom Day on May 3—which was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly back in December 1993, following a recommendation by the UNESCO's General Conference.

To preserve and defend human dignity and well-being we must protect the freedom of the press, if not – the people of the world will follow a road to self-extinction

WASHINGTON DC, Apr 28 2020 (IPS) - In 2014 my husband and I were arrested in my native country, Iran, for the crime of working as journalists. I spent 72 days in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, all of them in solitary confinement.

What I lived through during that time, years ago, compels me to speak out now in support of journalists who are behind bars at a moment when their communities need them most, during a public health pandemic where access to information is essential to combating the deadly virus.

Journalists will not provide the cure for coronavirus, but explaining the destructive rampage it’s on and ways to reduce the disease’s ability to spread, is an essential service that would be in the national security interests of every country that instead has journalists languishing in jail.

After our home was raided by security agents and we were taken, blindfolded and handcuffed, I was immediately placed in a tiny cell that was infested with cockroaches. I was given a set of prison clothes that had not been washed after the previous owner finished with them; I could smell her, whoever she was, the moment I put them on.

My cell had no toilet or sink, and I only had access to them when my guards felt like giving it to me. I was not allowed to shower for the first twelve days of my captivity.

Obviously, there is no good prison in the world. Short of execution, long term imprisonment is the most severe form of punishment, and in most parts of the world it’s intended, at least in part, to demean the people being held.

For political prisoners, which jailed journalists almost unanimously qualify as, a stripping of dignity is invariably a key part of the process.

In prison I had no way of maintaining good hygiene or avoiding malnutrition. There was no access to vitamins, clean water or fresh air. Psychological pressure leads to stress levels that are unimaginably higher than the ones we experience in our normal lives.

Credit: CPJ

In such an environment, rest doesn’t come easy. Attempting to sleep on the ground, with only filthy blankets as cover and the lights that were turned on 24 hours a day made it nearly impossible.

Imagine the increased risks posed by such circumstances with a fast moving and lethal virus on the loose in confined spaces. One becomes immuno-compromised by default the moment they are imprisoned.

In prison there are no adequate medical supplies or doctors to administer them. If a country is being decimated by the coronavirus right now, as Iran, China and Turkey are for example, the risks for prisoners increase exponentially. Especially in overpopulated public wards.

It is a disheartening irony that those prisoners currently being held in solitary confinement, as I once was, may actually be safer than those in general prison populations.

In the confined spaces of prison, one’s mind works over time. You are constantly worried about your loved ones in the outside world and they for you. With a pandemic spreading day by day, the sense of hopelessness imprisoned journalists are experiencing today for me is palpable.

Adding to that strain is the decision, however wise it may be, by most prisons to indefinitely suspend in person visits to inmates.

At a time when journalists could be helping to slow the spread of the virus by educating the public, too many are languishing behind bars, at least 250 according to the latest figures from the Committee to Protect Journalists where I work.

Many of them are ill and are not provided adequate access to healthcare. All of them are colleagues unjustly imprisoned for their work.

The imperative to ensure the safety of fellow journalists no matter where they are or what they cover drives my work at CPJ. In the current circumstances that means protecting their health, too.

This is why I join with colleagues from around the world in asking leaders to release journalists they are holding in prison. Doing so would be good for the world at a time when cooperation at all levels of society is desperately needed.


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