American journalist Roxana Saberi is heading home after she was released from an Iranian prison earlier this week. She had been sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of spying, but was released after an appeals court reduced her punishment to a two-year suspended sentence.
Worldfocus anchor Martin Savidge writes about his own experience being detained.
After what must have been a frightening time for her and her family, Roxana Saberi is heading home.
We’re still waiting to hear the exact cause for her trial and imprisonment in Iran, which Saberi says she will reveal when she’s ready. One account from an Iranian lawyer says it was because she was caught in possession of some sort of sensitive government document.
I have been detained twice in my life as a journalist so far.
The first incident was very early on in my career. It was my first television job, and I was working at WCIA-TV, the CBS affiliate in Champaign/Urbana, Illinois. There was a nationwide strike by the United Mine Workers, and my assignment editor got wind of a strip mine located just across the state line in Indiana that continued to operate. He thought that might make a good story, so the cameraman and I drove off.
It took a while to find the place on the dirt back roads. As we were getting close, we passed a family butchering a pig that was hanging from a tree in their front yard. I should have seen it as an omen, but I didn’t.
We found the mine, but it wasn’t operating. It wasn’t shut down in observance of the strike, but rather due to the recent rain — it was just too muddy for the heavy equipment. I radioed the assignment desk for instructions; they said “Shoot what you can and come on back.”
We started filming from the road but couldn’t see much, so we ventured onto the property — which of course was trespassing, and a mistake.
Not long after, I heard a voice from behind asking, “Just what the hell are you doing?” I turned to find a big, weather-beaten man with a grim face holding a large gun aimed directly at us.
I stammered out some weak answer. This was clearly the mine’s owner. He knew, as I did, that if the UMW found out he was operating during their strike, he’d be in deep trouble.
He proceeded to demand the tape and the camera. I was young, dumb and just out of journalism school, with just enough idealistic passion to tell a man with a gun in his hand “No.”
He marched us into a worksite trailer on the property. He sat me down at a desk and told me to call my station. I got my assignment editor on the line and told him that the owner had shown up and was demanding our video — failing to mention the gun. The assignment editor broke into an amazing string of expletives describing the mine owner and his lineage. It was also very loud. I heard it and so did the gun holder — that’s when I decided to let my assignment editor in on the fact the man had a gun on us.
The assignment editor stopped mid-“@##$!,” got quiet and asked if we were alright. “Yes,” I said.
“Give him the tape and the camera,” he told me. Just like that — no debate, no harsh words, just give him what he asks.
“But…” I started to stammer.
“Just give it to him,” came the worried voice over the phone.
So I told the cameraman to eject the tape and give it and the camera to the mine owner.
The funny thing was, the guy just sort of looked at me staring at the gun, which he seemed to notice in his hands for the first time. He could see I was scared. He quickly put it down on the desk making sure to point it away from us.
“@#$%!” the mine owner said. “Keep the damn tape and your camera and get out of here.” I told my assignment editor who was still on the phone listening that we were coming home.
After a long quiet ride back to the station, I walked in and gave the tape to the assignment editor. He asked if I was okay. I said yes. “Do you want me to write up something about the mine story?” I asked.
“Nah,” he said. “It’s not worth it.”
Since those days, I have had other run-ins with people with guns who’ve demanded my tape. I don’t argue with them — instead, I have devised other ways to prevent from ever losing a story. So far, I never have.
As for the second incident? That took place in Kuwait, and no amount of fast-talking would get me out of trouble — not when I was in the hands of the secret police being held at a secret military base. But that’s for another blog.
– Martin Savidge
For more on detained journalists, watch an interview with Joel Simon of the Committee to Protect Journalists: North Korea sets trial date for detained U.S. journalists.