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Medill to Rally for Roxana Saberi; Faculty Speak About Her

Students will lead a rally Thursday, April 23, in support of U.S. journalist and Medill alumna Roxana Saberi's release from an Iranian prison.

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April 20, 2009 | by Wendy Leopold
EVANSTON, Ill. --- A rally in support of Roxana Saberi -- the Iranian-American journalist and Medill School of Journalism alumna convicted of espionage last week in Iran -- will take place Thursday (April 23) at Northwestern University.

Organized by the University's Medill Undergraduate Student Advisory Council, the rally will begin at 5:15 p.m. in front of Fisk Hall, 1845 Sheridan Road, and end at the Rock, a Northwestern landmark for protests and rallies. At the Rock, John Lavine, dean of Medill, Jack Doppelt, professor of journalism, and others will confirm their support for Saberi and concern for her immediate release.

Saberi, who received a master's degree from Medill in 1999, is remembered as an outstanding student and journalist. "Roxana always wanted to be a foreign correspondent and to report about Iran and its people, in particular," said Larry Stuelpnagel, assistant professor of journalism and political science at Northwestern.

At the 2004 Unity Journalists of Color convention, Saberi talked with Stuelpnagel about how much she enjoyed living and working in Iran. "Her journalism from Iran was first-rate," Stuelpnagel said. "She does not deserve this."

The 31-year-old Saberi has lived and worked as a journalist in Iran for six years, reporting for National Public Radio, the British Broadcasting Corp. and other news outlets. In January, she was arrested in Tehran. Initial reports said she had bought wine, which is illegal to do in Iran. A spokesman for the Iran Foreign Ministry later said she had engaged in journalism without required press credentials.

On April 8, the Iranian government suddenly charged Saberi with espionage. It was then announced that the verdict of a one-day closed trial would be issued. Five days later, word came that Saberi was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison for spying for the United States.

Like her Medill supporters, the U.S. State Department has called the charges of espionage and Saberi's conviction baseless. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called for her speedy release.

Sharon Kornely, who teaches in Medill's Washington Program, remembers Saberi as "a smart and beautiful young woman who wanted more from her journalistic career than local cable news deadlines 24/7. She chose to get out of her comfort zone and cover news few others paid attention to. The stories she did in Iran helped explain to the rest of the world how ordinary Iranians felt about their lives," Kornely said.

Mary Coffman, associate professor of broadcast and video storytelling at Medill, said "Roxana's smile lit up the Medill newsroom when she was in Washington during spring quarter of 1999. She was a hard-working student reporter, not afraid to tackle the tough issues. I knew she would have a terrific journalism career ahead of her," said Coffman. "Unfortunately, this is not the way I ever envisioned that she'd become famous."

In a grant application a couple of years ago, Saberi, who was raised in North Dakota, wrote, "the Islamic Republic is difficult for foreigners to access and understand. I would like to become an expert on Iran so that I can share my understanding of this part of the world with others who do not have the opportunity to live here themselves."

"That's just what she'd been doing," said Doppelt, one of her former professors.

"I quickly learned Roxana wasn't your stereotypical beauty queen," said Lisa Byington, referring to the fact that Saberi many years ago competed in a Miss America contest. Byington, now a TV reporter, attended Medill with Saberi. "Roxana had a passion for journalism. She never looked at her watch, she worked until the story was done, and she always wanted to do it the right way," she said.

According to Medill's Kornely, Saberi was in Iran to celebrate her cultural roots. "She took pains to observe the custom of wearing a head scarf in public because she did not want to make anyone else feel uncomfortable. Roxana Saberi was in Iran to bridge a gap, not to create a deeper chasm."

For information about Thursday's rally, contact Medill Undergraduate Student Advisory Council member Shari Weiss at (516) 455-9249 or by e-mail at ShariWeiss2007@u.northwestern.edu.