Opinion

Detained US hikers in Iran: Help bring them home

Grass-roots efforts helped save the journalists in North Korea. It can help save the three American hikers detained in Iran.

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You may have awakened this morning to the news of a British man, Akmal Shaikh, who was executed for drug trafficking in China despite clemency sought by Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

And you might have heard about another man, Robert Park, a Korean American from Arizona, fighting for human rights and detained in North Korea.

While these two situations are remarkably different from the story of three American hikers detained in Iran this summer, they do share one thing in common: Detained thousands of miles from home all needed grass-roots support at home.

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At 1:30 in the morning on Aug.1, I was watching TV when I saw the breaking news about three hikers detained by the Iranians. I overheard the commentator announcing the hiker’s names. One of them was Josh Fattal.

I knew that there were probably many Josh Fattals. And I did not really believe it could be my friend from the eighth grade. But sure enough, when I read his Facebook page, there were his old status updates about an upcoming trip to find his roots in Iraq.

Over the next day or two, the story unfolded at the top of every hour on leading media outlets, but within a couple days the news was overtaken.

Despite the serious nature of this incident, Josh’s story became lost in the shuffle of the 24-hour news cycle. After all, he is not a celebrity or a journalist. He is an ordinary middle-class American.

The greatest strength of the news media is its ability to look out for ordinary people. Shouldn’t it be doing more to raise awareness about the hikers? To at least follow the grass-roots efforts of the detainees’ families and friends to free them? This support would provide a greater platform for those advocating for their safe and timely return.

To CNN’s credit, a little less than a month after the initial detainment, Anderson Cooper featured the mothers of the three American detainees in a heart-felt appeal for consular access to their children. Despite this coverage, the message did not last.

The hikers have been detained for more than five months, and it does not seem likely that they will be returning home for the new year holiday. Their families and the American people know little about their welfare or holding conditions, and few seem to care. Yet these hikers could have been anyone’s children traveling abroad, caught at the wrong place at the wrong time.

While Josh and his two friends remain captive, there are indications that the efforts of their mothers have not been entirely in vain. Through their work, in September, the families garnered support from the Pennsylvania senators, who jointly introduced a resolution in the House, which passed in late October, to publicly advocate for access to the hikers by the government of Switzerland and to encourage Iran to let the captives call their families in the United States. Finally, in late October, after the persistence of the families, the Associated Press reported that the Swiss ambassador to Iran was able to visit the detainees in Tehran.

The case of Euna Lee and Laura Ling show how crucial the media can be in winning freedom for detainees. The two US journalists faced stiff prison sentences for “illegal entry” into North Korea. President Kim Jong Il pardoned them, but only after winning a high-profile photo op with former president Bill Clinton. The world was watching. And that was the prize bargaining tool.

The most important lesson? The role of grass-roots support in raising awareness about their plight should not be underestimated. Prior to their trial and sentencing in early June, friends and family of Laura and Euna turned out thousands of people to vigils held in eight major cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Washington – drawing live coverage from CNN of the vigils. The campaign to free them accelerated, and the number of reports on their plight grew. It generated momentum among political elites and ultimately culminated with their high-profile release in August.

In mid-November, numerous media outlets reported that the three US hikers would stand trial on espionage charges in the near future. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has responded by stating that the charges brought against the three Americans detained in Iran are totally unfounded. The State Department has maintained that the hikers pose no threat to Tehran and have appealed to the Iranian leadership to release them.

Sometimes when American journalists are taken hostage, the media are encouraged to keep quiet about the situation in an effort to let the back channels work. Some argue that bringing too much media attention to a hostage crisis could escalate the situation. However, in this case, it has been 150 days since their detainment, and greater public support and awareness seems to be the only thing left to help their plight.

The family and friends of Josh Fattal, Shane Bauer, and Sarah Shourd are doing the right thing by mobilizing communities across the country in solidarity in the same way as those who supported Laura and Euna to advocate for their release.

As soon as the American people learn of their plight, the probability of their release increases. Write your senators, e-mail news outlets looking for information on them, sign a petition to the Iranian government, spread the word. When grass-roots efforts gain traction, the media follows. Every little bit helps.

Clarence Tong is a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School and was Josh Fattal’s classmate in the Cheltenham High School Class of 2000. You can find more information about the three detained American hikers at http://freethehikers.org.

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