Marcus Hellwig and Jens Koch Identified as German Journalists Held by Tehran


On Tuesday The New York Times printed the names of Marcus Alfred Rudolf Hellwig, a reporter, and Jens Andreas Koch, a photographer. They have been detained in Iran since October, when they traveled there to cover the story of a woman sentenced to death by stoning for adultery. Both men, pictured above, work for the German mass circulation tabloid Bild am-Sonntag.

The Times is the first major international media source to release the names, on which the German government had issued a blackout in German media, and had requested other media sources not to publish. However, on December 13th, a Swiss publication, “Neue Zurcher Zeitung” published an opinion piece in which the men were identified.

I have been in possession of their names since late November, but held off on publishing them due to concerns that doing so could jeopardize the German government’s efforts to secure their release. I agonized over this decision and contacted members of the German Bundestag for comment. Based on their lack of response, and on information I received that these men’s families wished, at that time at least, to follow the German government’s approach and keep their captivity low profile, I elected not to publish the names.

The issue of whether and how to publicize their names, identities, and to share biographical information and stories/details about these men’s lives is a sort of microcosm of the debate over how to deal, diplomatically and strategically, with the Islamic Republic of Iran. On the one hand, if history is an indicator, appeasing a fanatical regime like Tehran will not work. By accommodating the regime in terms of agreeing to keep a low profile on this and other cases, refraining from reporting, publicizing, and shining light on the regime’s abuses, journalists will probably strengthen Tehran’s hand. After all, dictators flourish by using intimidation, physical and psychological, to remain in power.

So far the German government has taken a carrot-over-stick approach. Earlier this month, I wrote a story about secretive visits to Iran on the part of members of Germany’s Bundestag, as well as efforts afoot within Germany to promote business cooperation between the Islamic Republic and German businesspeople. (This business consortium took place even as long-awaited cooperative U.S.-led sanctions were being introduced to economically isolate Iran).

There is plenty of reason to be skeptical about the German government’s approach.  It probably won’t work, because it pre-supposes Tehran is reasonable, that the mullahs’ goal is simply to save face and prosper, not to dominate, control, bully, and destroy other parties. If in fact the latter is the correct assessment, such an approach will probably be interpreted as a sign of weakness, and the bullying/dominating behavior will, rather than abate, increase, because from the standpoint of the regime, it is gaining ground.

This debate over appeasement versus confrontation has direct relevance to the cases of the German journalists Hellwig and Koch, as well as to the plight of U.S. hikers Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, who remain in captivity, as well as to that of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who has been sentenced to death for adultery, and to the many other prisoners at the mercy of the regime. Of course, it also directly relates to the larger issue of how to deal with Iran’s nuclear aspirations, which is something President Obama and other world leaders must deal with (more on that another time).

For now, regarding the journalists and the hikers, the issue for journalists, as well as concerned U.S. citizens, is whether to keep a low profile on their captivity or to do all we can to make noise about their plight. It seems increasingly clear to me that the time for a major campaign to protest their captivity may be long overdue. That said, I acknowledge that I did not initially publish the names due to concern about these men – and also hope that Germany’s “carrot” approach might work and worry that, by publicizing their plight, I could undermine a sensitive diplomatic effort. Looking back, I may have been a party to the general “appeasement mindset” that could be helping to ensure these men and, in a broader sense, the entire international community, remains hostage to a rogue regime that will not be stopped until someone stops them. That said, in the moment when one must make a decision, it is not always clear cut. After all, if there is even a chance that a diplomatic effort can succeed, who wants to undermine it, however inadvertently?

Tuesday, the Islamic Republic released photos of these men visiting with their families.  Tehran also released a photo of the men’s passports, which included their names (The Times published its story after this photo was released). Ironically, then, it was Tehran that outed their identities – not the German government or The Times. It is is tempting to speculate that perhaps Tehran “outed” them preemptively, out of concern that, following the Swiss publication’s identification, last month, of these men and fiery appeal to Germany to agitate for their release, Iran created a photo-op to stave off an oncoming campaign akin to the one launched to free Ashtiani, which activists believe has worked to save her life thus far.

One thing is for certain: photo ops like the one Iran provided of Hellwig and Koch on Tuesday should not be confused with genuine mercy or respect for human rights. Tehran shows zero mercy to individuals who do not have attention from their governments or the mass media. Yesterday, a man named Ali Akbar Siyadat was hanged at Iran’s Evin Prison on charges of spying for Israel. Every day, innocent people are abused by Tehran. The fact that the international community never learns the names of most of these people only cements their tragic fate.

Time to make noise about the plight of Hellwig and Koch, and to keep reminding the world about the plight of innocent Americans Bauer and Fattal. Their case should be higher profile among Americans, as they remain imprisoned and forgotten by too many despite efforts of their friend Sarah Shourd, who published a song for her friends, or Jeff Kaufman, who produced a film, “Free the Hikers.”

More to come.

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