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For Iran and U.S., mutually restrictive visa policies

Istanbul-based McClatchy correspondent Roy Gutman has been honored for his reporting from Srebrenica to Baghdad. But he can't get a visa for Iran. He blames the U.S. government, at least in part. 

The problem, in Gutman's view, is a short-sighted policy that essentially excludes Iranian journalists from the United States. Iranian journalists are almost never granted journalists visas that would allow them to travel freely in the U.S. Those who are admitted generally accompany visiting government delegations and are given a limited visa, called a C-2, which restricts them to within a 25-mile radius of the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Iran has reciprocated in kind, granting limited visas to U.S. reporters and circumscribing the movements of those it does admit. "I was talking to a press officer at the Iranian mission about the difficulty of getting a visa to cover Iran and he pointed out that Iranian journalists in the U.S. get the same treatment," said Gutman. "I think this is terrible."

Of course the Iranian government is not known for its media friendly policies. A vicious crackdown is underway in advance of the upcoming presidential elections scheduled for June. Dozens of journalists are in jail, some serving long sentences. International media operating in Iran are routinely harassed, controlled, and monitored, and Iranians employed by international media organizations have faced charges of espionage.

But Iran's media strategy is more complex than it appears. Despite this abysmal record, the Iranian government believes it is engaged in a war of ideas with the West and uses the media to make its case to the global public. Its well-funded, English-language broadcaster Press TV has bureaus all over the world. The government allows international media organizations to establish bureaus in Tehran, and regularly, though selectively, grants visas to international journalists. U.S journalists are singled out for especially shabby treatment and their movements are generally restricted to within 25 miles of Tehran.

Gutman concedes that giving out visas to Iranian journalists who want to cover the U.S. may not produce dramatic changes in Iranian behavior, but it would at least eliminate an excuse that Iran routinely uses deny visas to U.S. journalists. "This is an open country," Gutman says of the U.S. "That's something we should want to highlight."

No one in either government was particularly responsive to CPJ queries. The U.S. State Department provided links to basic visa guidelines and did not respond to a follow-up question regarding the number of Iranian journalists granted visas. The Iranian mission to the U.N. did not answer CPJ's questions about the country's visa policy for U.S. journalists.

Promoting more journalistic contact between Iran and the U.S. is in the national interest, Gutman believes. It would facilitate information exchange and promote understanding between two countries whose discourse is increasingly bellicose. The absence of journalists on the ground makes it easier to create distortions and misinformation, which in turn makes war more likely.

It also creates misunderstandings and confusion--none weirder than the Iranian obsession with New Jersey. When the Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari was arrested and brutalized back in 2009 in retaliation for his reporting in Newsweek, his interrogator obsessively questioned him about New Jersey, which he viewed as a hotbed of depravity. Bahari was at a loss to understand the obsession with the Garden State, until he realized that this was as far afield as members of the Iranian delegation were permitted to travel. Perhaps they would have a more favorable view of the United States if they could visit Kansas.

"There are so many reasons why it would be beneficial for us to have more American journalists in Iran," Gutman concludes. But even if granting visas to Iranian journalists does not facilitate access for the U.S. press, he says, "We should stick to our own principles and push for the freedoms that we believe in."

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