I-Team Report: Journalist or spy?

April 29, 2009 Roxana Saberi was convicted this month in Iran of using her job as a journalist to conceal her role as an American spy.

And now she is in an Iranian prison looking at eight years for espionage. But on Wednesday night, the I-Team has learned there are other factors in play.

She wasn't just a TV reporter from Washington, according to Iranian officials. This month a court in Tehran ruled Roxana Saberi was working for Washington; buying information about Iran's nuclear program.

"I guess the irony was she had many contacts that were in government. There are pictures of her with Khomeini and with other people; religious leaders and others in government and they knew what she was doing and still she reported for NPR and the BBC and Feature Story News," said Prof. Jack Doppelt, Medill School of Journalism.

Professor Jack Doppelt taught Saberi journalism ten years ago and more recently had her speak to Medill students studying in Paris.

Saberi has an Iranian father and Japanese mother but hails from the heartland: North Dakota.

"I've always known Roxana as a reporter, a very dedicated reporter," said Sen. Kent Conrad, (D) North Dakota.

She was Miss North Dakota in 1998 and top ten for Miss America. With her Medill master's degree, six years ago she began reporting from Iran.

"She was totally aware of the risks and she had been aware of the risks since she got there," said Doppelt.

The overarching risk: Saberi has U.S. and Iranian passports. But Iran does not recognize dual citizenship and therefore she is subject to their strict laws.

Saberi was first arrested for allegedly trying to buy a bottle of wine, then charged with practicing journalism without a government permit after hers was revoked without explanation in 2006. That charge upgraded to working as a secret agent for the C.I.A.

"No way. She cannot be a spy. You know her. Once you know her, she is the last person to do that. She would never do that to anyone, even to the enemies," said Akiko Saberi, Roxana's mother.

At Northwestern, students have rallied in support. Letters have been sent to organizations and leaders who might help.

Medill student Joseph Freeman compiles the latest news on her case and posts it on this Web site.

"She was one of the only journalists on the ground in Iran who has a US connection and is trying to teach people in the United States about what's going on in that country," said Joseph Freeman, journalism graduate student.

There was one element of Saberi's life that few knew before her arrest: her relationship with Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi who says they were engaged to be married.

"I have no idea and I found out about the fiancé, the boyfriend, by reading about it about a week ago," said Doppelt.

Ghobadi is part of Iran's new wave of filmmakers and has invoked the ire of Iranian authorities. The production of his most recent film was banned by the Islamic government. If Iranian officials initially arrested Saberi as a way to pressure her fiancé Ghobadi, it may have worked.

Last week, Ghobadi released a letter saying he was responsible for her arrest because she had wanted to return to the U.S. years ago.

"I kept her from it," he wrote. "And now I am devastated, for it is because of me she has been subject to these events."

"I hope they will heed that letter and they will pay a close attention to all the evidence in the file," said Reza Saberi, Roxana's father.

Saberi's father says is daughter has been on a hunger strike to force her release. Iranian officials say she's not on a hunger strike. The government also says it may soon publicly release some spy evidence even as Saberi's appeal is pending.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson is still trying to get a visa to Iran to secure her freedom.

For more information on Roxana Saberi's case: http://freeroxana.net/.

Iran's English news site: http://www4.irna.ir/En/default.aspx?IdLanguage=3

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