How Leonard Cohen helped a journalist through torture

There was a fascinating interview on Channel 4 News last night, as Jon Snow spoke to journalist Maziar Bahari about his three months of interrogation and torture in Iran’s Evin prison. Bahari described the bizarre behaviour of his interrogator, who he named ‘Mr Rosewater’: how he was obsessed with the journalists’s sex life; how Rosewater would talk on the phone to his wife about their wedding anniversary while ill-treating Bahari; and how a Leonard Cohen song helped the journalist get through his ordeal (odd choice if you ask me).

One revealing comment illustrated the risks of being a journalist in Iran right now. Rosewater listed the foreign intelligence agencies that he believed Bahari to be working for, and one of them was called ‘Newsweek’. When the journalist pointed out that this is a magazine, which he does indeed contribute to, his interrogator just told him that they ‘knew’ that this was a front for a foreign spy ring.

Bahari also described one of his greatest moments of hope – when a guard called him ‘Mr Hilary Clinton’, after the US Secretary of State referred to him in an interview. “This was the moment when I knew I hadn’t been forgotten, when I knew that there was an international campaign on my behalf,” he said. Welcome news to all those who keep campaigning for the countless journalists who are still behind bars or threatened with death just for doing their job.

And there’s plenty of campaigning needed. A report from the International Federation of Journalists today described 2009 as one of the worst for targeted killings of journalists, with nearly 140 losing their lives in just one year. While deaths of media professionals dropped considerably in Iraq, the report highlighted the Philippines, Somalia and Mexico as the most dangerous places for journalism last year.

Governments around the world continue to lock up journalists just for what they write or broadcast. In Azerbaijan, following years of harassment by the authorities, 33-year-old newspaper editor Eynulla Fәtullayev was tried and sentenced in 2007 to eight and a half years imprisonment on politically motivated charges. We believe that this is an attempt to silence his reporting, which was critical of the government.

The Azerbaijani authorities are known to imprison journalists for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression – Eynulla has previously been beaten, received death threats and faced libel suits because of his work. In June last year he was awarded the Special Award For Journalism Under Threat at the annual Amnesty Media Awards (which is coming round again soon – watch out for the call to entries if you’re a UK journalist yourself). We’re asking people to write to Eynulla in prison to show him that people are still campaigning for him – hopefully it will help him as it did for Maziar Bahari.

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