Journalist Dorothy Parvaz freed after international campaign

Dorothy Parvaz.

Al Jazeera journalist Dorothy Parvaz, who had been missing for nineteen days was released by the Iranian government on May 18.

Parvaz left Doha on April 29 to cover the escalating anti-government protests in Syria. Upon arrival in Damascus, she was immediately detained by an unidentified security service.

Until May 4, the Syrian government did not acknowledge that she was in their custody. But on May 10, it released a statement stating that it had deported Parvaz to the Iranian consule in Tehran.

The Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ) said, regional media reports indicate she had been sent to Iran on May 1.

Before her release, the Iranian government refused to acknowledge that they had her in their custody. But it did ackowledge that Parvaz, who holds Iranian, US and Canadian citizenship, had committed visa violations.

A May 17 Reuters article reported Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson Ramin Mehmanparast said: "She had violated the law in several cases ... she wanted to travel to Syria with an expired Iranian passport [as a tourist but] aimed at working as a journalist without asking for relevant permits."

Iranian citizens do not need a visa to enter Syria.

While detained, Parvaz had not been allowed contact with family, friends or Al Jazeera and her whereabouts and physical and mental condition were not disclosed.

Since the beginnings of anti-government protests in Syria, the Syrian government has sought to restrict and repress journalist activity within the country.

It has also refused to issue visas to foreign journalists seeking to enter the country. The CPJ said that since March, 20 local and international journalists have been physically assaulted, detained or expelled.

There are five journalists who continue to be detained in Syria. These are Ghadi Frances and Fayiz Sara, both writers for the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir; Mohamed Zayd Mastou, a correspondent for Al-Arabiya; freelance photographer Akram Darwish; and Ghassan Saoud, a contributer to Lebanese and Kuwaiti newspapers.

The detaining of Parvaz and other journalists in Syria has been the typical response of authoritarian governments to journalists seeking to cover the people power movements throughout the Middle East.

On May 10, the Bahraini government expelled Reuters correspondent Frederik Richter for "lacking balance" in his reporting. The CPJ said in the week up to May 17, the Bahraini government detained five journalists.

Al Jazeera had its licence to broadcast removed in Egypt as it sought to cover the uprising against former dictator Hosni Mubarak. At least 49 journalists have been detained in Libya since the uprising began against the Gaddafi regime in mid-February.

Most governments in the Middle East facing popular movements have almost a complete monopoly over the news media in their countries. Any news outlet that challenges this monopoly faces the prospect of repression.

Parvaz's fiance told the Associated Press: “She is very committed. She believes reporting the truth is a force to make people's lives better and she lives and breathes that.”

While she was detained, her family and friends set up The Find and Free Dorothy Parvaz campaign, which sought to raise awareness throughout the world about her disappearance. It also urged Canadians to contact Iran embassy asking for her release.

The campaign was taken up strongly on social media websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, with 16,129 people joinging the "FreeDorothy" page on Facebook. David McCumber, a journalist for the Houston Chronicle, said the campaign to have her released was “an amazing and uplifting grassroots response to a government's cowardly act”.

He went on to say “Why do governments lock up journalists? Do they really believe that doing so will allow them, in this age of communications technology, to keep secret their actions against their own citizens? If so, it is up to the rest of us, journalists who are plying our trade well out of harm's way and others of good conscience everywhere, to take up the slack and make sure the truth is known.”

Parvaz's brother wrote on the FreeDorothy Facebook page that he was "grateful to all of you. Particularly to the close friends and colleagues who maintained this page. You kept the faith, made phone calls, wrote letters, rallied, watched the media (some of you *were* the media)... and never lost hope. You have done a good thing, and at least in my mind, have been part of a great thing."


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