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The Plight of Three Journalists Imprisoned in Iran Reveals the Risks That Come With Real Reporting

The work of independent freelancers willing to travel the world at their own risk and on their own dime has never been more critical.

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 ( 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.

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.

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