Northwestern community members rallied Thursday evening to protest the Iranian government’s continued detention of journalist Roxana Saberi, who received her graduate degree from Medill in 1999. The student-organized event, which attracted as many journalists to cover it as actual participants, was a testament to the growing interest in and outrage over the case at Northwestern and in the American media.
The march, which started at 5:30 p.m. at Fisk Hall, proceeded to the Rock, and featured speeches from Medill professors, an NU students that offered support for Saberi and condemned the tactics of the Iranian government. Protestors shouted “Free Roxana” and “Bring Saberi home,” getting louder as they approached the Rock.
Medill dean John Lavine was the first to address the crowd, and his speech highlighted some of the various incarnations Saberi’s case has assumed in the past months; the case has been a humanitarian and personal tragedy, the subject of diplomatic tension, and a reminder of the perils and value of international reporting. “My message is quite simple,” Lavine said. “Justice, humanitarianism and freedom.”
When Saberi was arrested in Iran in late January, Northwestern professors, especially Medill professor Jack Doppelt, who has maintained contact with Saberi since she left Medill, were among the first to speak out.
“Roxana Saberi is no more a spy than I am, or you are,” Doppelt said, citing Iran’s refusal to release any evidence to support the charges. He warned of the urgency of the situation, and said that “[Saberi] told her parents she was going on a hunger strike this morning.”
Two months after her arrest, Saberi was charged with spying and sentenced to eight years in Iranian prison in a closed one-day trial. President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Northwestern President Henry Bienen have all advocated for Saberi’s immediate release.
The rally was also an occasion to reflect on the issue of free speech. Lavine told the onlookers that “the freedom of the press is the freedom to tell this story.” And told it was — campus, local and national media pushed for space to talk to the professors and students participating in the rally.
Subsequent speakers included Joe Freeman, a Medill graduate and lead writer for the blog Free Roxana, and an anonymous Iranian Northwestern student, whose comments were read by Shari Weiss, a Medill senior and event organizer.
“Roxana is innocent,” the Iranian student wrote. “I hope for a day when the lives of people are not tools for politicians to reach their goals.”
Doppelt encouraged the marchers to sign petitions and participate in an upcoming letter-writing campaign. He added that he had sent an email to Saberi this morning and relayed the message, “we are standing by you at every turn. The students called for this debate from the ground up.”
The idea for the rally was conceived during a meeting of the Medill Undergraduate Student Advisory Council, according to Medill junior Sarah Fay. During open discussion, Weiss suggested taking action to support Saberi.
“It certainly speaks to what we do that there are as many members of the media as there are students,” Fay said.
The idea that media can be an active part of the fight to free Saberi is one that pervaded the event, implicitly in the number of journalists in attendance, and explicitly in the comments of the marchers. In his speech, Doppelt said that one victory in his campaign has been convincing “newsrooms that the story was worth keeping alive.”